Diplomatic spat deepens as US examines Chinese balloon debris
By Yew Lun Tian and Steve Holland
BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A diplomatic rift between China and the United States deepened on Tuesday with Beijing accusing Washington of flying high-altitude balloons into its airspace and that of other countries, as the U.S. military examined debris of a suspected Chinese spy balloon it downed this month.
The Chinese balloon, which Beijing denies was a spy vessel, spent a week flying over the United States and Canada before President Joe Biden ordered it shot on Feb. 4. The U.S. military has since carried out three more shootdowns as it combs the skies for objects that were not being captured by radar.
The White House said on Tuesday it was still searching for debris from the most recent, unmanned objects, and had not seen any indication they were part of China's spy program. But they exposed Washington's heightened sense of alert as the standoff over the balloon delays efforts to reset bilateral relations.
China says the balloon shot down on Feb. 4 was a civilian weather-monitoring aircraft. Beijing has accused Washington of sending its own balloons into Chinese airspace, and on Tuesday alleged those objects had flown above other countries as well.
U.S. balloons "flew around the world and illegally entered the airspaces of China and other relevant countries at least ten times" since May 2022, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, without providing details or evidence.
China asserts numerous disputed territorial claims, including Taiwan and parts of the East and South China Seas, where the U.S. military says it routinely operates according to international law.
The White House has disputed China's allegations. Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, tweeted on Monday: "Any claim that the US government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC is false."
Washington has imposed sanctions on six Chinese entities it says are tied to the balloon, an action which drew criticism from Beijing on Tuesday. But there are some signs the two countries are still seeking to inject stability into turbulent relations.
Biden, who has repeatedly vowed to protect U.S. airspace and criticized China over the balloon, has also said that he does not believe relations between the two countries were weakened by the incident.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who postponed a planned trip to Beijing over the balloon, is considering meeting China's top diplomat Wang Yi in Munich this week, sources said.
'COMMERCIAL OR BENIGN PURPOSE'
The U.S. military said on Monday it had recovered critical electronics from the suspected Chinese spy balloon as well as large sections of the vessel itself.
But it has not yet recovered debris from the most recent three objects shot down, with tough weather conditions making recovery operations difficult.
White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday that no group or individual has claimed the three objects, and that the U.S. intelligence community believes they could be "tied to some commercial or benign purpose."
The objects include an object downed over sea ice near Deadhorse, Alaska, one brought down over Canada's Yukon and a third shot down over Lake Huron.
Demonstrating the difficulty of taking down the three objects, the top U.S. general, Mark Milley, said the first of two missiles fired from an F-16 fighter jet at the object over Lake Huron on Sunday missed the object, but landed harmlessly in the water.
"We certainly tracked it all the way down," Milley told a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday.
Top U.S. defense and military officials held a classified briefing for U.S. senators at the Capitol on Tuesday. Republican senators urged Biden, a Democrat, to publicly share more information about the objects.
"Ninety-five percent of what was discussed in that room today can be made public without compromising the security of this country," Republican Senator Marco Rubio said after the briefing.
(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Beijing newsroom and Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Alistair Bell)