The United States Navy has released the first official images of its effort to recover what Washington says was a Chinese “surveillance balloon”, which was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean after being spotted in US airspace last week.
The photos published on Tuesday showed US Navy members from an explosive ordnance group leaning over a rigid-hull inflatable boat and pulling in broad swathes of the balloon’s white outer fabric and shell structure.
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Using underwater drones, warships and inflatable vessels, the Navy is carrying out an extensive operation to gather all the pieces of the device, which spent several days flying over North America last week before being shot down on Saturday off the coast of South Carolina.
The balloon measured approximately 60 metres (200 ft) tall and was carrying a long sensor package underneath, which the head of US Northern Command, General Glen VanHerck, said earlier this week was about the size of a small, regional jet.
While Beijing has said the balloon was an “unmanned civilian airship” that was primarily gathering weather data and had blown off course, Washington denounced its presence in US airspace as an “unacceptable” violation of the country’s sovereignty.
VanHerck said on Monday that the teams involved in the balloon recovery efforts were taking precautions to safeguard against the chance any part of the balloon was rigged with explosives.
The Navy is also using ships to map and scan the sea floor for all remaining parts of the balloon so US analysts can get a full picture of what types of sensors were used and to better understand how the balloon was able to manoeuvre.
The incident has heightened tensions between the two countries, prompting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned visit to the Chinese capital that had been expected to begin on Sunday.
China said the decision to shoot down the device “seriously impacted and damaged” its relationship with the US, but White House national security spokesperson John Kirby, on Monday, said Washington was not seeking confrontation.
Kirby dismissed China’s contention the balloon was for meteorological purposes, saying “it strains credulity … that this was some kind of weather balloon that was floating on the winds”.
On Tuesday, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters that “the [Biden] administration is looking at other actions that can be taken” in response to the balloon, though he did not provide further details.
While the top Democratic legislator acknowledged that US-China relations were “tense”, Schumer defended President Joe Biden’s administration amid criticism from Republicans, saying its actions were “calm, calculated and effective”.
“This is one area where we don’t need politics. So we need Democrats and Republicans to come together,” Schumer said.
Members of the Republican Party have accused the administration of failing to bring down the balloon quickly enough and taking a “weak” stance towards China.
A Pentagon spokesman said on Tuesday that China declined a US request for a phone call between the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe.
The Pentagon submitted the request for a secure call on Saturday, immediately after shooting down the balloon, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, [China] has declined our request. Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue,” Ryder said.
Relations between the two powers have been strained in recent years by a number of issues, from disputes over technology and trade to the status of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing sees as part of its territory.
Cooperation between the US and China, the first and second largest economies in the world, respectively, is critical to tackling global issues such as climate change.
Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping – who held in-person talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia in November – have previously stressed they are not looking for confrontation or a new Cold War.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, an official with the US State Department told reporters that lines of communication would remain open and that the US and China would seek to “responsibly manage” their differences.