The U.S. military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina and is now moving to recover fallen debris, an episode that has derailed efforts to ease tensions between the two countries.

President Joe Biden praised aviators who were involved in the mission conducted in U.S. airspace above its territorial waters, telling reporters that he ordered national security officials on Wednesday to have the balloon shot down.

Biden said the balloon was not immediately downed as officials "said to me let's wait to the safest place to do it."

A suspected Chinese spy balloon flies above Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 4, 2023. (Anadolu Agency/Getty/Kyodo)

China has claimed the balloon, which was flying at an altitude well above that used by air traffic, is a "civilian" weather research balloon that was blown off course.

But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated in a statement on Saturday that it was being used by China "in attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States."

"Today's deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC's unacceptable violation of our sovereignty," Austin said, referring to China by the acronym for its official name the People's Republic of China.

According to a senior defense official, the balloon, which was estimated to be the size of three buses, was taken down in the afternoon by an F-22 fighter with a single missile when it was at an altitude of nearly 20 kilometers.

The official said the United States will look into the balloon's payload and what kind of sensitive information it was collecting during the week it spent above U.S. and Canadian territory.

The Pentagon publicly disclosed the presence of the balloon over the United States on Thursday, leading to the abrupt postponement the following day of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's high-profile visit to China.

Hours after the downing of the balloon, China released a statement voicing its "strong dissatisfaction and protest over the use of force by the United States to attack the civilian unmanned airship."

The country's Foreign Ministry said the United States has overreacted to the incident and urged Washington to handle the situation in a "professional and restrained manner."

Blinken, who was due to depart for Beijing on Friday night, called its flight an "irresponsible act" and criticized China for violating U.S. sovereignty and international law.

The long-planned trip by Blinken was part of efforts to improve ties between the world's two biggest economies. Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping in person in November for the first time since taking office.

During the meeting in Indonesia, the two presidents agreed to facilitate communication, despite significant disagreements about Taiwan, human rights and many other issues.

But the discovery of the balloon became a new flashpoint between Washington and Beijing.

The Pentagon said Friday a second Chinese balloon had been detected over Latin America, without providing details.

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Blinken puts off China trip after spy balloon detected over U.S.

Suspected Chinese spy balloon in U.S. airspace, China says for weather use