WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday that three unmanned aerial objects shot down over the weekend by the U.S. military were “most likely tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions,” and were not connected to the massive Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down on Feb. 4.
“We don’t yet know what these three objects were, but nothing right now suggests that they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” Biden said at the White House.
The remarks came after days of mounting pressure from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who said the American people deserved to hear from the president exactly what the administration knew about the spy balloon and why Biden later ordered three more floating objects shot down by American fighter jets.
The president explained that in the wake of the Chinese balloon, American military defense radars raised their sensitivity levels “to pick up more slow-moving objects above our country and around the world.”
“In doing so, they tracked three unidentified objects, in Alaska, Canada and over Lake Huron in the Midwest,” he said.
“I gave the order to take down these three objects due to hazards to civilian commercial air traffic, and because we could not rule out the surveillance risk over sensitive facilities,” said Biden.
Sailors assigned to Assault Craft Unit 4 prepare material recovered in the Atlantic Ocean from a high-altitude balloon brought down over U.S. territorial waters on February 4 for transport to federal agents at Joint Expeditionary Base-Little Creek in Virginia Beach, Virginia, February 10, 2023.
Ryan Seelbach | US Navy Photo | via Reuters
As of Thursday, the White House said it had recovered key surveillance technology from the Chinese balloon. “What we learn will strengthen our capabilities,” he added.
It was not clear whether any debris from the three smaller objects had been recovered, or for how long those efforts would continue.
Following the destruction of the spy balloon, the United States announced new sanctions last week on six Chinese military and aerial technology firms for their alleged involvement in China’s global aerial surveillance program.
On Thursday, Beijing announced its intent to levy sanctions against major U.S. defense contractors in an apparent retaliation for the American sanctions.
But rather than raise the stakes even higher with his remarks, Biden sought to defuse tensions between the world’s two largest economies, tensions that some experts say are near an all-time high.
“We seek competition, not conflict with China,” said the president. “We’re not looking for a new Cold War … we will compete and will we responsibly manage that competition so that it doesn’t veer into conflict.”
The spy balloon episode, he said, “underscores the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between our diplomats and military professionals” in Beijing and Washington.
Biden also said he expected to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping and “get to the bottom” of what happened.
Two white balloons float near the Chinese flag as activist Rev. Patrick Mahoney protests against the Chinese government over the alleged Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down over the US last week, during a demonstration outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, February 15, 2023.
Saul Loeb | Afp | Getty Images
Speaking later to NBC’s Peter Alexander, Biden said the balloon incident was an example of the hundreds of individual events “of consequence” that occur between two major world powers like the U.S. and China, which are significant on their own, but “don’t necessarily reflect any fundamental change in policy.”
“I think the last thing that Xi wants is to fundamentally rip the relationship with the United States that was made, in terms of access” to U.S. markets, Biden told Alexander.
The massive Chinese surveillance balloon was first detected in American airspace off of Alaska on Jan. 28, and was shot down on Feb. 4 in U.S. airspace off the coast of South Carolina.
Floating visibly above the continental U.S. and Canada for eight days, the spy balloon caused an outcry, with both the public and members of Congress demanding to know why Biden had not ordered the balloon be shot down sooner.
Less than a week after the spy balloon was destroyed, the first of three more objects was taken down in waters above the Arctic Ocean on Friday. The size of a small car and floating at 40,000 feet, this object was much smaller than the Chinese balloon.
One day later, a balloon that was similar in size and altitude was shot down over the Canadian Yukon. The third floating object was slightly smaller and floating at just 20,000 feet when it was taken out over Lake Huron on Sunday.