The effort off the coast of South Carolina is expected to take days, and Navy and Coast Guard ships have been sent to the scene. U.S. officials are watching for retaliation from China.
WASHINGTON — Navy divers were searching for debris from the Chinese spy balloon that a U.S. fighter jet shot down off the coast of South Carolina, defense officials said on Sunday, as the fallout from the dramatic confrontation between the world’s two great powers showed no signs of easing.
The recovery effort, which is expected to take days, began not long after debris from the balloon hit the water on Saturday, a defense official said. He added that a Navy ship had arrived on the scene, and that other Navy and Coast Guard ships, which had been put on alert, had also been dispatched.
The shooting down of the balloon, occurring at the end of a remarkable week of high-stakes international drama playing out in the open skies and behind closed doors, introduced a new phase in the increasingly tempestuous relationship between the United States and China, as each vies to be the pre-eminent world power across the economic, military and technological realms — with intelligence-gathering occupying a critical role in their competition.
That a confrontation over a single surveillance balloon deemed harmless by the Pentagon could destabilize diplomacy between the two countries showed the difficulties of putting “guardrails on the relationship,” a goal stated in those terms by President Biden and his aides.
The Chinese government denounced the U.S. decision to down the balloon, calling it an “excessive reaction that seriously violates international convention.” The Foreign Ministry said China “retains the right to respond further,” and the National Defense Ministry said it would “use the necessary means to deal with similar circumstances.”
American officials said they were watching China carefully for any reactions beyond words — including potential strikes on American assets. Officials from the State Department and the White House National Security Council spoke with Chinese officials about the downing of the balloon soon after it happened, a senior Biden administration official said. The State Department also briefed officials in allied and partner nations.
President Xi Jinping of China will likely have to balance placating popular nationalist sentiments with meeting practical diplomatic concerns in taking the next steps. Some Chinese citizens called online for Beijing to stand up to the United States over the downing of the balloon. And for years, Mr. Xi has painted himself as a guardian of the Communist Party’s original goals of power consolidation inside China and projection outside — which includes confronting the United States where the aims of the two nations clash.
While China has insisted that the electronics-laden machine was simply a weather balloon that had drifted off course, Biden administration officials have stood firm that its purpose was a somewhat hapless effort by Beijing to spy on American military installations.
The balloon began drifting into U.S. territory on Jan. 28, when it entered Alaskan airspace near the Aleutian Islands. Pentagon officials said they took steps — without offering specifics — to make sure the balloon did not yield much fruit as it hovered near Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and other installations.
They also said China could glean the same amount of intelligence from a spy satellite.
A U.S. official said on Sunday that there were ways for intelligence officials to feed false information to the balloon, which would largely render the information it gathered worthless. He declined to say whether that was done in this case.
Better Understand the Relations Between China and the U.S.
The two nations are jockeying for influence on the global stage, maneuvering for advantages on land, in the economy and in cyberspace.
- Spy Balloon: The discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the United States illustrated the lingering mistrust and growing tensions between the two powers.
- Wooing Indonesia: China and the United States are engaged in the strategic battle for influence over the resource-laden nation of nearly 300 million people. So far, Beijing has the edge.
- The Philippines’ Role: The U.S. military is expanding its presence in the Philippines, a sign that the United States is positioning itself to constrain China’s armed forces and bolstering its ability to defend Taiwan.
- Investing in Mexico: Alarmed by shipping chaos and geopolitical fractures, exporters from China are setting up factories in Mexico to preserve their sales to the United States.
Nonetheless, the incident turned into a full-fledged diplomatic quarrel between the two powers, with Biden administration officials admonishing their Chinese counterparts and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken canceling what was to be the first trip to China by a Biden cabinet secretary.
Mr. Blinken said he told Wang Yi, the Chinese Communist Party’s top foreign policy official, that China had violated U.S. sovereignty with the balloon and that he would visit Beijing “when conditions allow.” Mr. Blinken had been expected to meet with Mr. Xi and discuss a range of issues.
Officials in Washington and Beijing had seen the trip as part of a renewed effort to establish high-level dialogue during a period of heightened tensions. Before the visit was called off, Jessica Chen Weiss, a political scientist at Cornell University, said that “a good outcome would be an agreement to continue talking, widening the aperture for discussions and continuing to rebuild the channels of communication that were stymied by the pandemic and prior decisions on both sides to stop talking.”
Pentagon officials have made clear that they plan to collect every piece of debris that Navy divers can retrieve, for America’s own intelligence purposes. Once the debris is collected, the Pentagon is expected to hand it over to be studied by various federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
For days before the balloon was shot down, American officials debated various ways of bringing it to earth, including using a giant net or hook. A senior administration official said on Sunday that in the end, U.S. officials concluded that the balloon was so big that firing a missile was the only viable option.
Both Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III conveyed the military view that trying to lasso a balloon at 60,000 feet was not a good idea.
NASA scientists gave officials an analysis of the expected debris field, the administration official said.
Because the balloon was shot down in relatively shallow water, Pentagon officials believe the recovery effort will not be difficult. A Navy salvage ship was en route, the official said, and would support divers retrieving the balloon’s components in roughly 50 feet of water.
At that depth, the divers can spend about an hour and a half on the bottom and can use civilian-type scuba gear instead of needing specialized deep-sea equipment. Other than time considerations, the only limitations on their ability to work will be the water’s temperature, any underwater currents and the amount of air in their tanks.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers questioned how the balloon was allowed to pass over the United States, with Republicans blaming Mr. Biden for not acting sooner.
“We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutians instead of letting it float across middle America on its merry way,” Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“The idea that we were going to let this go all across America, a spy balloon complete its spy mission, before we shot it down, I’m afraid is an embarrassment to the United States, not an embarrassment to the Chinese.”
A senior defense official said on Saturday that Chinese balloons had entered American territory three times during the Trump administration and once previously during the Biden administration. Those forays, the official said, were brief.
Former President Donald J. Trump nonetheless denied that he had missed three balloons during his tenure. “China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did,” Mr. Trump wrote in a post on his social network Truth Social. He called the Pentagon assertion “JUST FAKE DISINFORMATION.”
Several senior national security officials from the Trump administration have asked why they had never heard of the spy balloon encroachments.
On Sunday, the Pentagon was standing firm. Chinese government surveillance balloons briefly traveled across the continental United States at least three times during the Trump administration and once at the beginning of the Biden administration, but never for this long, a senior defense official said in an emailed statement.
The information on the three balloon transits in the Trump years was discovered after that administration had left, a senior Biden administration official said on Sunday night. Intelligence officials can offer briefings on China’s balloon surveillance program to “key officials” from the Trump administration, the person said. The balloons have appeared over five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia and Europe, among other places.
Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, praised the military operation to down the balloon. He described it as “a decision that was focused on protecting human life,” but he cautioned that the incident should not have happened at all.
“We should not have had this kind of incursion into the United States,” Mr. Booker said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” adding that “we obviously have issues here.”
Republicans criticized Mr. Biden for not alerting the public sooner. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, called it a “dereliction of duty.”
“Why didn’t the president go on television?” Mr. Rubio said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “He has the ability to convene the country and cameras and basically explain what we’re dealing with here and why he’s made the decisions he’s making and what they intend to do.”
Privately, Biden administration officials called the criticism political. One administration official acknowledged that in the coming days, there will be much “Monday-morning quarterbacking,” but said the administration would be in far more trouble if the military had shot down the balloon over the continental United States and someone had been killed or injured.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on Sunday that the Defense Department would brief the full Senate on the episode next week.
America’s Western allies were quick to line up behind the Biden administration’s insistence that the balloon was a clumsy attempt at spying by China. Britain’s business secretary, Grant Shapps, told the BBC that his government supported the U.S. response. “It cannot be right to send spy balloons over the American mainland,” he said.
Anita Anand, Canada’s defense minister, said that her government “unequivocally” supported the mission, and that both she and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been briefed on the outcome. She said the balloon had “violated U.S. and Canadian airspace and international law.”
Reporting was contributed by Chris Buckley from Beijing, and Chris Cameron, Jonathan Swan and John Ismay from Washington.