The U.S military has collected some debris from a Chinese balloon that was shot down over the weekend off South Carolina and it will try to recover as much of the wreckage as possible to scrutinize the craft's surveillance capabilities, the White House said Monday.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters online that the United States has no plans to return the debris to China, which has claimed it was a weather research balloon that blew off course and entered U.S. airspace by accident, criticizing Washington's response as an "obvious overreaction."
Beijing opposed Washington's move to keep the debris, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning stressing at a press conference Tuesday that the balloon is China's. "The Chinese government will continue to resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests," she said.
Kirby reiterated that Washington believes the balloon was "conducting surveillance over sensitive military sites inside the United States," adding the object, equipped with propellers, had the ability "to maneuver itself, to speed up, to slow down and to turn."
Calling China's action an "egregious violation" of U.S. sovereign airspace, he said the downing was absolutely within the country's rights and in line with international law.
He added that the incident has hurt bilateral ties and "now it's just not the appropriate time for us to have any sort of face-to-face discussions with them on larger diplomatic issues," although President Joe Biden's recognition that Washington's ties with Beijing are very important remains intact.
Biden later told reporters, "We've made it clear to China what we're going to do. They understand our position. We're not going to back off."
In response to a question about whether the incident would erode relations between the two countries, the president said outside the White House, "We did the right thing. And there's not a question of weakening or strengthening. It's just the reality."
Also, in a sign of displeasure, he said, "Because they are the Chinese government," when asked why Beijing had committed such an act.
The balloon, which was estimated to be the size of three buses, was shot down Saturday by an F-22 fighter with a single missile when it was at an altitude of nearly 20 kilometers.
The discovery of the balloon, which was first disclosed by the U.S. Defense Department on Thursday, led to the abrupt postponement of a high-profile trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday that the two countries have not discussed rearranging a visit by Blinken.
Price said the United States is currently focused on sharing information on the Chinese balloon with Japan and other allies, and coordinating closely with them as similar cases had been detected in the past.
U.S. officials have said they are aware spy balloons belonging to China flew over the country at least three times while Donald Trump was president, but unlike the latest one, they traveled for brief periods of time.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command, said debris from the balloon, which first passed into the U.S. air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28, has been collected from an area of about 1,500 meters by 1,500 meters.
VanHerck told reporters that working together with the coast guard, they have been trying to locate sunken debris by using unmanned underwater vehicles.
He also revealed that the balloon was about 60 meters tall and the payload under the object weighed hundreds of kilograms, adding that the ongoing collection has given the United States "the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing."