US shoots down suspected Chinese spy balloon off Carolina coast

The United States shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of the Carolinas on Saturday, according to the Pentagon.

“This afternoon, under the direction of President Biden, a US fighter jet assigned to US Northern Command successfully shot down a high-altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the waters off the coast of South Carolina in U.S. airspace,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.

The FAA restricted airspace over three Carolina cities on Saturday after President Joe Biden promised ‘we’ll take care of it’ during a layover in Syracuse, New York

The president’s comments ignited speculation that the United States was planning to shoot down the balloon, which was hovering over North Carolina on a path to the ocean, according to local news reports. It was first spotted in Montana on Wednesday.

On Saturday afternoon, an FAA spokesman confirmed that the agency has suspended arrivals and departures at airports in Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston “to support the Department of Defense in a national security effort.” A temporary restriction on flights to the area until at least 3:30 p.m. ET was also announced.

Later Saturday, Biden smiled and gave reporters a thumbs-up when asked if the United States would shoot down the balloon. He did not respond to further questions about whether he ordered the shootdown or any messages he allegedly sent to China as he boarded Air Force One at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in New York.

China has denied using the balloon to spy on the United States, saying it was a civilian airship used to monitor the weather that went off course due to an unexpected wind. But the Pentagon has so far warned against shooting down the balloon for fear that falling debris could injure people on the ground.

“The last thing we wanted was for something the size of a school bus to go through the roof of a kindergarten,” a Defense Department official said Friday.

All week lawmakers have been calling on Biden to address the potential threat, with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who chairs the panel overseeing the Pentagon budget, calling the balloon a “clear threat” to national security.

“I’m asking for answers from the Biden administration,” Tester said in a statement. “I’m going to iron people out in front of my committee to get real answers about how it happened and how we can stop it from happening again.”

The balloon’s presence has further strained already strained US-China relations, and a public shooting down of the ship is unlikely to improve relations. However, it will help Biden on the domestic political front, where he is facing calls, especially from Republicans, to be even tougher on Beijing.

News of the balloon prompted a discussion between department and agency leaders within the administration about whether to cancel Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit to Beijing this weekend. Ultimately, the decision was made to postpone, not cancel, though it’s unclear when Blinken will leave.

“The objective of the trip was to look for a ‘plan’ in the relationship and explore potential areas of cooperation in mutual interest,” said a US official familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. “It’s hard to do constructively with a Chinese balloon over the United States – it would have dominated all conversations. It was better to defer until a better time, and the whole agency agreed.”

Adam Cancryn, Oriana Pawlyk and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.

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