China ‘spy’ balloon was in US airspace three times during Trump presidency, officials say

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Chinese spy balloons entered US airspace on three occasions during Donald Trump’s presidency, defence officials said.

The announcement came after US fighter jets destroyed a suspected spy balloon belonging to China over the Atlantic on Saturday. Teams are searching for the debris.

In a statement, the Defence Department said: “Chinese balloons briefly transited the continental United States at least three times during the prior administration.”

Mr Trump appeared outraged at the statement, responding on his Truth Social on Sunday morning that “the Chinese balloon situation is a disgrace, just like the Afghanistan horror show, and everything else surrounding the grossly incompetent Biden Administration”.

The US believes the balloon was monitoring sensitive military sites and its discovery sparked a diplomatic crisis, with US secretary of state Anthony Blinken calling off his trip to China, branding the incident an “irresponsible act”.

China denied claims the device was used for surveillance and insisted it was a weather ship blown off course.

The US has disputed this claim, adding the device could not have blown away, as it was manouverable and “it has propellers on it”.

Donald Trump said the balloon situation was a ‘disgrace’ (AP)
Donald Trump said the balloon situation was a ‘disgrace’ (AP)

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has hit back at the shooting down of the balloon.

It said: “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.

“China had clearly asked the US to handle this properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner,” it added. “The US had insisted on using force, obviously overreacting.”

“China strongly disapproves of and protests against the US attack on a civilian unmanned airship by force,” the ministry said according to the South China Morning Post.

The ministry said “The US’s use of force is a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice”, adding China has the right to make “further responses that are necessary”.

The balloon after it was struck by a missile on Saturday (Chad Fish)
The balloon after it was struck by a missile on Saturday (Chad Fish)

The Republican chair of the House intelligence, Mike Turner, said: “Clearly this was an attempt by China to gather information, to defeat our command and control of our sensitive missile defence and nuclear weapon sites.”

Before the balloon was shot out of the sky, top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said that China “has always strictly followed international law”.

He said: “We do not accept any groundless speculation and hype. Faced with unexpected situations, both parties need to keep calm, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgements and manage differences.”

Members of the public spotted the balloon on Thursday as it flew over Montana, home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

President Joe Biden said on Saturday that he was alerted to the presence of the balloon earlier in the week, although this was not disclosed at the time.

“On Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down, on Wednesday, as soon as possible,” he said.

The decision was made not to shoot the balloon while it was over ground, to avoid falling debris causing a safety risk to the public.

President Joe Biden speaks with members of the press on Saturday (AP)
President Joe Biden speaks with members of the press on Saturday (AP)

Pentagon officials say an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon at 1440 local time [GMT 1940] on Saturday, puncturing it while it was off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The navy is taking the lead in an operation to recover the remnants.

“They successfully took it down and I want to complement our aviators who did it,” Mr Biden said after getting off Air Force One on his way to Camp David, reported Associated Press.

Mr Blinken’s trip to China, which had been agreed upon in November, was seen as crucial to stabilising tense relations between the US and China.

On Saturday, after Mr Blinken called off the trip, Mr Wang claimed that it had never formally been confirmed anyway.