The US military has wrapped up the salvage operation off the coast of South Carolina to retrieve debris from the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was shot down over the Atlantic two weeks ago.
US Northern Command, which is responsible for the defending the American homeland, said the mission was concluded on Thursday after the navy “located and retrieved debris from the high-altitude [People’s Republic of China] surveillance balloon”.
It added that the final pieces of debris were being transferred to an FBI lab in Virginia for “counter-intelligence exploitation”.
Rescue teams have been retrieving parts of the balloon, as well as sensors and other surveillance equipment that were in its payload, from the Atlantic since it was downed on February 4.
Three other unidentified objects were also subsequently shot down over North America last week, though US President Joe Biden said on Thursday these showed no indication of links with China.
“Our military and the Canadian military are seeking to recover the debris so we can learn more about these three objects,” he said.
The Biden administration is discussing how it can declassify some of the sensitive information about the Chinese balloon, which flew over North America for eight days before it was shot down by a US F-22 fighter jet.
Biden on Thursday said he planned to talk to Chinese President Xi Jinping to “get to the bottom” of the incident, which has sparked yet another crisis in US-China relations.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken cancelled a visit to China two weeks ago following the discovery of the balloon. He is trying to arrange a meeting this weekend at a security conference in Munich with Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, but as of Thursday China had not yet agreed to one.
The appearance of the balloon over North American skies and its subsequent shooting down has derailed efforts launched by Biden and Xi in Bali, Indonesia, in November to move towards repairing their relationship.
Beijing on Friday criticised the US for its policy towards Taiwan after the Financial Times reported that the top Pentagon China official was visiting the island. Michael Chase is only the second senior defence department policymaker to visit the country since 1979, when the US switched diplomatic recognition for China from Taipei to Beijing.
On Thursday, Biden defended his decision to order the shooting down of the balloon, which appeared over Alaska on January 28 and then flew over Canada and the US. On its journey, the balloon flew over, and loitered above, a sensitive military site in Montana where the Pentagon locates nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
“We shot it down, sending a clear message . . . that the violation of our sovereignty is unacceptable.”