China said Monday it has lodged a protest over the U.S. downing of a Chinese balloon used for what it called "civilian" research purposes, as American military personnel sought to recover debris from it off the coast of South Carolina.
Vice Chinese Foreign Minister Xie Feng on Sunday made "solemn representations" to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, saying that Washington "obviously overreacted and seriously violated" the spirit of international law by shooting down the balloon a day earlier, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, on Feb. 4, 2023. (Chad Fish/AP/Kyodo)
The United States suspects the balloon was used for surveillance purposes and says it violated its sovereignty, while China claims it was a weather research balloon that had blown off course and strayed into U.S. airspace accidentally.
Xie said the U.S. downing of the balloon had seriously damaged efforts by the two countries to stabilize bilateral relations and urged the United States not to take further actions to harm China's interests and escalate tensions, according to the ministry.
He maintained that Beijing reserves "the right to make further responses if necessary," the ministry said.
The balloon incident led to the abrupt postponement of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's high-profile visit to China, derailing efforts to ease tensions between the world's two largest economies.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a press conference Monday that U.S. "sincerity" in stabilizing and improving bilateral relations and the way it handles crises have been tested.
"We hope the United States will work with China to properly handle our differences, avoid miscalculations and undermining mutual trust," she said.
Mao also said China immediately tried to verify the balloon flying over the continental United States after Washington informed Beijing of the incident, indicating her ministry had not been aware of it. She did not provide details about the operator of the airship at the press conference.
The balloon, which had also been spotted in Canada, traveled above locations including the U.S. western state of Montana, which is home to one of the country's three nuclear missile silo fields. It was downed by a missile over U.S. territorial waters.
On Saturday, Colombia's air force said an airborne object similar to a balloon had been detected the previous day in the country's airspace. CNN said the same day a possible Chinese spy balloon had also been spotted over Costa Rica.
Mao admitted that the balloon spotted in Latin America was also China's, saying it was test-flown for civilian purposes and made an unintended entry into the airspace in the region due to weather conditions and limited self-steering capability.