In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. Image Credit: Chad Fish via AP

Washington: The US government has launched a mission to salvage what officials say is spy equipment from the Chinese balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina, as pressure mounted on President Joe Biden to hit back at Beijing over the incident with new export controls on sensitive technology.

The government anticipates finding equipment capable of taking detailed photographs, along with other sensors, one person familiar with the matter said. US lawmakers are already demanding to know if the balloon's payload contains technology from the US or its allies, another person said. Both asked not to be identified because the administration doesn't want to reveal exactly what it suspects the balloon was carrying.

Navy personnel working at North Myrtle Beach

The balloon, said to be the size of at least two school buses, and its sensors are lying in 50 feet (15 meters) of water and scattered over a seven-mile (11-kilometer) area off Myrtle Beach. Divers and cranes operating from the surface were expected to haul it up in the coming days, potentially giving intelligence analysts crucial insight into Chinese spying capabilities.

The balloon and its sensors are lying in 50 feet of water and scattered over a 11-km area off Myrtle Beach.


'Serious repercussions'

China says it was nothing more than a weather-monitoring balloon that strayed off course, while the US insists it was much more, and part of a broader spying plan by the Chinese government. With that in mind, people familiar with the matter said the Biden administration was calibrating how severely and swiftly to retaliate.

"China firmly opposes and strongly protests against this," China's Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said in remarks to the US embassy in Beijing that were posted on the ministry's website on Monday morning.

"The Chinese government is closely following the development of the situation," he said.

In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. Image Credit: Chad Fish via AP

China has warned of "serious repercussions" and said it will use the necessary means to deal with "similar situations", without elaborating, although some analysts said they expect any response to be finely calibrated to keep from making bilateral ties even worse.

In a sign of the new tensions likely to come, China's Foreign Ministry sharpened its tone on Sunday and said it now reserves the right to respond after a US F-22 fighter jet popped the balloon with a Sidewinder missile and sent its payload crashing into the ocean. Beijing said the US violated international practices after an accidental incursion by the balloon.

"China will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the company concerned, and reserves the right to make further responses if necessary," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The international back-and-forth was a reminder that while the balloon may have come crashing down, the bizarre spying saga that surrounded it is far from over. Biden will almost certainly make reference to the episode in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, another person familiar with the matter said.

Briefing on Feb. 15

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said senators will get a full classified briefing on Feb. 15, which will give the administration time to collect and sort through the evidence to back up its claim.

"The bottom line here is that shooting down the balloon over water wasn't just the safest option, but it was the one that maximized our intel gain," Schumer said in a statement.

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Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader, says all senators will receive a briefing on Chinese spy balloon Feb. 15

Balloons like the one blown apart Saturday are not uncommon, but this time the Chinese made a mistake by flying it low enough to be spotted by commercial pilots and people on the ground, according to one person familiar with the matter. Typically balloons like the one shot down fly above 80,000 feet and as high as 100,000 feet.

The administration has already faced fierce GOP criticism in recent days for being weak on China and not shooting down the balloon sooner. US officials argued that it simply wasn't safe to bring the floating orb down over land when it was carrying a large and heavy payload.

Spectators look at a photo of a Chinese spy balloon after it was shot down off the coast in Holden Beach, North Carolina, U.S. February 4, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

The administration may not feel the need to level any other immediate consequences on Beijing for the episode given that US officials are comfortable with their broader position in terms of competition with China

Starting in October, the Biden administration rolled out tough export controls against China that have curtailed Beijing's ability to access high-end semiconductors, and the US has only closed the vice more tightly since "- including signing up nations to the effort such as the Netherlands and Japan, whose firms manufacture some of those chips.