China accuses US of violating international practice and threatens repercussions after Pentagon shoots down what Beijing says was its "unmanned civilian airship."
China has blasted the US decision to shoot down an alleged spy balloon spotted flying over North America, accusing the United States of "clearly overreacting and seriously violating international practice" and threatened repercussions.
"China expresses strong dissatisfaction and protests against the use of force by the United States to attack the unmanned civilian airship," Beijing's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
In its statement, the ministry added that “China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response.”
The craft spent several days flying over North America, ratcheting up tensions between Washington and Beijing, before it was brought down just off South Carolina’s coast by a missile shot from an F-22 jet on Saturday, Pentagon officials said.
The downing of the balloon created a spectacle over one of the state’s tourism hubs and drew crowds reacting with a mixture of bewildered gazing, distress and cheering.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called the operation a "deliberate and lawful action" that came in response to China's "unacceptable violation of our sovereignty".
American officials first said on Thursday that they were tracking a large Chinese "surveillance balloon" in US skies.
That led Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday to scrap a rare trip to Beijing designed to contain rising US-China tensions.
After initial hesitation, Beijing admitted ownership of the "airship", but said it was a weather balloon that had been blown off course.
China said it had "clearly requested that the United States properly handle the matter in a calm, professional and restrained manner".
It emphasised that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the US not to "smear" it based on the balloon.
READ MORE: US military shoots down Chinese 'spy balloon' over Atlantic
On Saturday, multiple fighter and refueling aircraft were involved in the mission, but only one — an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia — took the shot at 2:39 pm (1939 GMT), using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, a senior US military official said.
The balloon was shot down about six nautical miles off the US coast, over relatively shallow water, potentially aiding efforts to recover elements of the "Chinese surveillance equipment" in the coming days, officials said.
The shootdown came shortly after the US government ordered a halt to flights in and out of three regional airports — Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston — due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed ''national security effort.'' The flights resumed on Saturday afternoon.
While Saturday's shootdown concludes the military dimension to the spying saga, Biden is likely to continue to face intense political scrutiny from Republican opponents in Congress who argue he failed to act quickly enough.
The balloon first entered US airspace in Alaska on January 28 before moving into Canadian airspace on January 30. It then re-entered US airspace over northern Idaho on January 31, a US defence official said.
The balloon was spotted on Thursday over Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has fields of nuclear missile silos.
Once it crossed over US land, it did not return to the open waters, making a shootdown difficult.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. Officials said the balloons are part of a fleet that China uses for surveillance, and they can be maneuvered remotely through small motors and propellers.
One official said they carry equipment in the pod under the balloon that is not usually associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research.
This isn't the first time Chinese spy balloons have crossed into US airspace in recent years, one of the officials said. At least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden's time as president they've seen balloons cross, but not for this long, the official said.
READ MORE: US using balloon incident 'as pretext to smear China'