China declined U.S. call after American missile popped spy balloon

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The Chinese government didn't want to hear it.

After the U.S. destroyed the suspected spy balloon over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, China declined Washington's request for a secure call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his counterpart, National Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, the Defense Department said Tuesday.

The aim of the call, it appears, was to ratchet down tensions and open further avenues for dialogue after the spy balloon saga in an effort to "responsibly manage the relationship" between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China, or PRC, said the Pentagon press secretary, Gen. Pat Ryder.

"Lines between our militaries are particularly important in moments like this," he said. "Unfortunately, the PRC has declined our request. Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue.”

The U.S. used an F-22 Raptor to shoot down the balloon with a Sidewinder missile early Saturday afternoon. Tensions didn't chill after the balloon splashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Before the Biden administration shared its decision to shoot the balloon out of the sky, China claimed that it was a “civilian airship” used for weather research and that its appearance in U.S. airspace was an “unintended entry.” Beijing said it aimed to continue its dialogue with U.S. officials about its appearance in American skies.

Once the balloon was destroyed, China's Foreign Affairs Ministry was quick to share “strong dissatisfaction and protest over the use of force” by the U.S.

“The Chinese side had clearly requested the U.S. side to handle the situation properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner,” the ministry's statement said, calling the administration's decision an “obvious over reaction and a serious violation of international customary practice."

A balloon in the sky over Billings, Mont., in images taken Feb. 1. The Pentagon said Thursday that a suspected Chinese spy balloon was hovering over the area. (Chase Doak / AFP - Getty Images)
A balloon in the sky over Billings, Mont., in images taken Feb. 1. The Pentagon said Thursday that a suspected Chinese spy balloon was hovering over the area. (Chase Doak / AFP - Getty Images)

“The Chinese side will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the companies concerned, while reserving the right to make further necessary responses,” the statement said.

A senior administration official responded to China's statement soon after it came out, telling NBC News on Saturday that the balloon was used for surveillance and that it “purposely traversed” the U.S. and Canada, “and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites.”

The balloon entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28 north of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska before it entered Canada a few days later. It re-entered the U.S. the next day in northern Idaho before it slowly made its way across the U.S., coming close to multiple American nuclear sites.

Navy divers are working to recover pieces of the balloon, which will be analyzed at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia.

U.S. officials said it is unlikely that China uncovered much information through its balloon's surveillance that it would not have already known through its use of satellites.

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, told reporters Monday that the U.S. had, in fact, waited to destroy the balloon because it was gathering intelligence on the inflatable’s capabilities.

“This gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmission capabilities existed,” he said, “and I think you’ll see in the future that the time frame was well worth its value to collect over.”

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