Biden should have hit Chinese balloon sooner, Republicans say

F-22 shoots balloon down, but only after it crossed the US

The remnants of the balloon drift over the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet below it, on February 4. AP
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US Republican politicians on Sunday said President Joe Biden should have acted sooner in shooting down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that crossed the US before the military eventually destroyed it.

The balloon entered American airspace last week when it blew over the Aleutian Islands off western Alaska, before sailing over Canada and then crossing back into the US over Idaho.

The US military first became aware of what China claims to be a weather balloon on January 28, but it took a full week for the Air Force to shoot it down, by which time it had drifted over to the East Coast.

"We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutian Islands," said Republican Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate armed services committee.

"We should never have allowed it to transit the entire continental United States."

Mr Cotton told Fox News he believed Mr Biden had waited to disclose that US airspace had been breached because he wanted to salvage Secretary of State Antony Blinken's planned trip to Beijing, which was ultimately postponed.

"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," he said.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Pentagon collected "valuable" intelligence by studying the balloon, and that three other Chinese surveillance balloons had crossed the US during Donald Trump's administration — a disclosure the Republican former president denied.

"China had too much respect for Trump for this to have happened, and it never did," Mr Trump wrote on his Truth Social media platform.

Mr Biden said on Saturday that he issued an order on Wednesday to take 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.

An Air Force F-22 fighter shot it down off the South Carolina coast on Saturday.

Debris from the balloon landed in water about 15 metres deep, shallower than officials had expected, and it spread out over about 11 kilometres.

Officials estimated the recovery efforts would be completed in a short time, not weeks.

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 some time this week.

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".

China has denied claims of spying and said it was a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the balloon’s journey was out of the Beijing government’s control.

“This was not an accident. This was deliberate. It was intelligence, you know?” said Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.

“This really damages a relationship between us and China” and “puts a big dent in moving forward in a constructive way, which we really need to do," Mr Mullen said.

Meanwhile, Colombia's air force on Saturday provided limited details concerning a possible balloon its air defence system had located a day earlier.

Agencies contributed to this report.

Updated: February 05, 2023, 7:33 PM