U.S. sailors retrieve what's left of the alleged Chinese spy balloon
Balloon was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet after it drifted into American airspace
Using underwater drones, warships and inflatable vessels, the U.S. Navy is carrying out an extensive operation to gather all of the pieces of the massive Chinese suspected spy balloon a U.S. fighter jet shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.
In the newest images released by the Navy on Tuesday, sailors from Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 are seen leaning over a rigid hull inflatable boat and pulling in broad swaths of the balloon's white outer fabric and shell structure.
The head of U.S. Northern Command, Gen. Glen VanHerck, said Monday the teams were taking precautions to safeguard against the chance any part of the balloon was rigged with explosives.
The balloon was an estimated 60 metres tall and was carrying a long sensor package underneath, which VanHerck estimated was the size of a small regional jet.
The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday imposed a temporary security zone in waters off South Carolina during the military's search for debris from the balloon.
The Navy is using ships to map and scan the sea floor for all remaining parts of the balloon, so U.S. analysts can get a full picture of what types of sensors the Chinese were using and to better understand how the balloon was able to manoeuver.
U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters it was always his view that the balloon needed to be shot down and brushed off a question about whether the incident would weaken U.S-China relations.
"No. We made it clear to China what we're going to do," he said. "They understand our position. We're not going to back off. We did the right thing and it's not a question of weakening or strengthening — it's reality."
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the balloon's flight over the United States had done nothing to improve already tense relations with China and dismissed Beijing's contention it was for meteorological purposes.
The appearance of the Chinese balloon caused a political uproar in the United States and prompted the top U.S. diplomat, Antony Blinken, to cancel a Feb. 5-6 trip to Beijing that both countries hoped would steady their rocky relations.
"Once it came over the United States from Canada, I told the Defence Department I wanted to shoot it down as soon as it was appropriate," Biden told reporters on the weekend. "They concluded ... we should not shoot it down over land. It was not a serious threat and we should wait until it got across the water."
Beijing condemned the shooting down of the balloon as an "obvious overreaction" and urged Washington to show restraint.
When asked on Tuesday whether China had asked the United States to return the debris from the downed balloon, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the balloon belonged to China.
"This balloon is not American. The Chinese government will continue to defend its legitimate rights and interests," she said at a regular presser.
Mao also said she did not have more information on what equipment the balloon was carrying.
Recovery could give insight into spy capabilities
The balloon debris is scattered in waters that are about 15 metres deep, but stretch across an area 15 football fields long and 15 football fields across, VanHerck said.
U.S. officials have played down the balloon's impact on national security, but say a successful recovery could give the United States insight into China's spying capabilities.
Kirby said the United States was able to study the balloon while it was aloft and officials hope to glean valuable intelligence on its operations by retrieving as many components as possible.
With files from Reuters