The US has said it does not plan to return the debris from the Chinese spy balloon shot down by the Pentagon on Saturday to Beijing, even after technical experts have finished analysing the surveillance capabilities that were on board the craft.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said there were no plans to return the debris to China, which has accused the US of violating the “spirit of international law” by downing the balloon. Beijing said the aircraft was being used for civilian meteorological research, a claim Washington has rejected.
Asked if the US would return any parts of the balloon retrieved by navy divers conducting a salvage operation off the coast of South Carolina, Kirby said: “I know of no such intention of plans to return it.”
In 2001, a US spy plane was forced to make an emergency landing at a Chinese military base on Hainan island after a Chinese fighter jet hit the aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea. China returned the EP-3 aircraft but only after it had spent months examining it.
One person familiar with the US administration’s thinking about the balloon episode said China had not at that point asked for its return.
Kirby said the White House categorically denied Beijing’s claim that the US had violated international law, saying it was “unequivocally” false.
“In fact, that’s why we did it [shot down the balloon] about six miles off the coast, inside our territorial airspace, so that we could comply with international law,” Kirby said. “Unlike the Chinese, who didn’t comply with international law by flying it over sovereign US airspace.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the US would “exploit” any parts of the balloon or payload that are salvaged to learn more about the system. He added that the military had advised that it be shot down over water to “create a greater possibility that we could effectively exploit the wreckage than if it were shot down over land”.
The balloon episode has derailed the countries’ efforts to set “a floor” under their turbulent relationship — something US president Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping agreed was needed when they met at a summit in Indonesia in November.
Kirby on Monday stressed the US remained committed to trying to stabilise the US-China relationship, which has sunk to its worst level since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1979.
“Nobody wants to see conflict here,” Kirby said, adding that US secretary of state Antony Blinken had only “postponed” his planned trip to China, despite telling Beijing on Friday he was cancelling the visit in light of the balloon’s discovery in US airspace.
The US navy continued the salvage operation that started soon after the balloon crashed into the Atlantic on Saturday afternoon.
General Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command, said the balloon was about 200ft tall and that the payload under the large orb — the part of the system that carried surveillance equipment — was the size of a regional jet.
On Monday evening, Costa Rica said China’s foreign ministry had apologised through its embassy in San José for a second balloon that had flown over the country, saying it “regretted the incident”.
The Chinese embassy reiterated that the balloon was a civilian aircraft that served “scientific, mainly meteorological, purposes” and had “suffered a deviation from its scheduled route”, Costa Rica’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
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