“The US used force to attack our civilian unmanned airship, which is an obvious overreaction. We express solemn protest against this move by the US side,” China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said in a statement on Sunday afternoon local time.
China “reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations,” he added.
China’s Foreign Ministry had earlier on Sunday accused the US of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice,” after US military fighter jets on Saturday shot down the balloon over the Atlantic Ocean in a mission President Joe Biden hailed as a success.
The United States believes the balloon was involved in espionage, but China has refuted this, insisting it was a civilian research vessel blown off course.
“The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement said.
“Force Majeure” is a legal term which means “greater force”. It excuses a party from liability if an unforeseen event, such as a natural catastrophe, prevents it from performing its obligations under the contract.
“China clearly asked the US to handle it properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner. A spokesman for the US Department of Defense also stated that the balloon will not pose a military or personal threat to ground personnel,” the ministry’s statement continued.
“China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of relevant companies, while reserving the right to make further necessary reaction,” the foreign ministry added.
Chinese state media on Saturday announced that the head of the country’s weather service was relieved of his duty, in a move seen by some analysts as an attempt to shore up Beijing’s position that the high-altitude balloon was of civilian nature mainly for meteorological purposes.
Zhuang Guotai was the head of China Meteorological Administration until Friday, but his departure from that post was not unexpected. In late January, Zhuang was elected the head of the western Gansu province’s People’s Political Consultative Committee, the provincial political advisory body.
US officials have pushed back on China’s repeated claims the downed balloon was simply for civilian use and had made its way into American airspace by “accident.”
“This was a PRC (People’s Republic of China) surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposely traversed the United States and Canada and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites,” a senior US administration official said.
The official said a second balloon, spotted over Central and South America, was “another PRC surveillance balloon” and bore similar technical characteristics to the one that flew over the US.
“Both balloons also carry surveillance equipment not usually associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research,” the official said. “Collection pod equipment and solar panels located on the metal truss suspended below the balloon are a prominent feature of both balloons.”
Pentagon officials earlier this week said the balloon posed no “military or physical” threat. The US decided against shooting down the balloon while it remained over land due to the risk of falling debris hurting a civilian and instead waited until it was over the ocean.
The US military will now focus on debris recovery efforts.
The incident is the latest in a series of spying cases and has fueled a diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Washington.
Taiwan weighs in
Meanwhile Taiwan authorities on Sunday said that the Chinese balloon incident “should not be tolerated by the civilized international community.”
The self-governed island, which China claims as part of its territory despite never having controlled it, has experience of similar balloons overflying its territory.
“Such actions by the Chinese Communist Party government contravene international law, breach the airspace of other countries, and violate their sovereignty,” Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, calling on China’s government to “immediately cease conduct of this kind that encroaches on other countries and causes regional instability.”
Balloons believed to be used for “meteorological observations” flew over the island In September 2021 and in February 2022, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense.
But it remains unclear if those balloons were the same type as the one downed by US fighter jets on Saturday.