China fires head of weather service over spy balloon fiasco
The head of China’s weather service was fired as Beijing appeared to deflect blame for a spy balloon that caused a major diplomatic incident for flying over US nuclear weapons sites.
Joe Biden, the US president, ordered F22s to shoot down the balloon that US officials insist was collecting intelligence.
China has continued to deny allegations that the balloon served any surveillance or espionage purposes, instead saying it was a weather research “airship” that had blown off course.
Zhuang Guotai, the head of the China Meteorological Administration, was removed from his position, it emerged on Sunday.
The Chinese government also accused the US of a “serious violation” after the balloon was shot down on Saturday night.
“For the US to insist on using armed force is clearly an overreaction that seriously violates international practice,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement.
Beijing threatened that it “reserved the right to take further actions in response”.
A US Air Force F22 fighter jet fired an AIM-9X missile through the helium balloon on Saturday night, deflating it and sending the payload plummeting towards the Atlantic Ocean:
WATCH: The moment the Chinese spy balloon was shot down pic.twitter.com/DhjcjVPA9f
— BNO News Live (@BNODesk) February 4, 2023
An operation was under way in US territorial waters to recover debris from the balloon, expected to include instruments and sensors. Whatever is recovered will be taken to an FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, officials said.
It is understood some debris from the balloon has been found off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The balloon has sparked a diplomatic firestorm, with Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, cancelling a two-day visit to China that was due to begin on Sunday over concerns that meetings would be unproductive and overshadowed by the incident.
Mr Blinken would have been the highest-ranking official to visit China since Mr Biden became president, and the first secretary of state to visit in more than four years.
However, Beijing sought to minimise the cancellation, repeatedly highlighting that the visit had not been officially confirmed, likely a way to smooth over embarrassment as Mr Blinken was expected to meet with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president.
“In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit,” China’s foreign ministry claimed. “The US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that.”
This was echoed several times in state media, with the Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, repeating several times that there was “no confirmation from China on Blinken’s visit”.
“Before being clear of the facts, the US military and media accused China of spying, and this balloon incident has taken US’ hyping of the ‘China threat’ to a new level.”
Sending a surveillance balloon over the US was a brazen move in the days ahead of Mr Blinken’s visit.
However, Beijing is accusing Washington for using it as an excuse to escalate bilateral tensions. China condemned the use of force “to attack civilian unmanned airships”.
The Global Times highlighted China’s stance – that a weather research “airship” had simply blown off course.
US mocked for shooting down balloon
Comments on Chinese social media, heavily censored by the government, also followed the government’s line, with a number of posts ridiculing the US for stressing over a balloon.
One person joked that if the US is willing to shoot down a balloon with missiles, then it better try to catch radiation leaking into the water from Japan with fishing nets.
Government officials in Taiwan – an island with its own democratic government, military and currency that China claims as its own – said that similar balloons were spotted in Japan in June 2020, and twice in Taipei in the previous two years, hovering for a few hours in the area.