Republican politicians have criticised US president Joe Biden for waiting days to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floated over the country, accusing him of showing weakness towards China and initially trying to keep the breach of US airspace undisclosed.
A US Air Force fighter jet on Saturday shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina, a week after it first entered US airspace near Alaska, triggering a saga that has further strained US-Chinese relations.
Defence secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday the US military was able to collect “valuable” intelligence by studying the balloon. He claimed that three other Chinese surveillance balloons had transited the US during Donald Trump’s administration – which the Republican former president denied.
“We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutian Islands. We should never have allowed it to transit the entire continental United States,” said Republican senator Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to the chain of small islands that arc off the coast of mainland Alaska.
Mr Cotton told the Fox News Sunday programme he believed President Biden had waited to disclose the penetration of US airspace because he wanted to salvage secretary of state Antony Blinken’s planned diplomatic trip to Beijing, which ultimately was postponed.
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“I think part of it is the president’s reluctance to take any action that would be viewed as provocative or confrontational towards the Chinese communists,” Mr Cotton added.
Mr Biden said on Saturday he had issued an order on Wednesday to down the balloon after it crossed into Montana, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to protect civilians from debris crashing to Earth from nearly twice the altitude of commercial air traffic.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said the Republican criticisms “are premature and they are political”.
The Defense Department in the coming week will brief the Senate on the suspected Chinese spy balloon and Chinese surveillance, Mr Schumer told a news conference on Sunday.
Republican representative Mike Turner, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said the panel was set to receive a briefing on the spy balloon this week, though the exact timing has not been determined.
Mr Turner said the balloon travelled unhindered over sensitive US nuclear missile sites, and that he believed China was using it “to gain information on how to defeat the command and control of our nuclear weapons systems and our missile defence systems”.
“The president has allowed this to go across our most sensitive sites and wasn’t even going to tell the American public if you hadn’t broken the story,” Mr Turner told NBC’s Meet the Press programme. “There was no attempt to notify Congress, no attempt to put together the Gang of Eight [a bipartisan group of congressional leaders]. I think this administration lacks urgency.”
Republican senator Marco Rubio, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the ABC News programme This Week that he would ask administration officials what future preparations have been made to prevent such an incident.
Mr Rubio also said China was trying to send a message that it could enter US airspace, adding that he doubted the balloon’s debris would be of much intelligence value.
Mr Trump on Sunday disputed Mr Austin’s statement that Chinese government surveillance balloons had transited the continental United States briefly three times during his presidency.
“China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did,” Mr Trump wrote on social media.
Speaking on Fox News Channel’s Sunday Morning Futures show, Mr Trump’s former director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, also denied such balloon incidents.
China on Sunday condemned the US action against what Beijing called an airship used for meteorological and other scientific purposes that had strayed into US airspace “completely accidentally” - claims rejected by US officials.
“China had clearly asked the US to handle this properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “The US had insisted on using force, obviously overreacting.” – Reuters