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What's next in the saga of the suspected Chinese spy balloon

President Biden speaks to reporters after arriving in Hagerstown, Md., on Saturday. He congratulated the aviators who took down the Chinese balloon.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden speaks to reporters after arriving in Hagerstown, Md., on Saturday. He congratulated the aviators who took down the Chinese balloon.

The balloon is down.

On Saturday the U.S. military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, after it had traveled across much of the U.S., capturing the attention of residents and the media alike.

China said the balloon was a meteorological research vessel blown off course and expressed "strong dissatisfaction and protest" over its downing.

Now the U.S. military is left to literally pick up the pieces of the wreckage, as diplomats and members of Congress express concern over the incident.

Here's the latest:

U.S. officials are working to investigate the balloon's wreckage

Top U.S. officials say they were able to learn about the Chinese surveillance balloon by tracking it across the country, and now they're hoping to learn even more by examining the pieces that remain after a fighter jet shot it out of the sky on Saturday.

In a background briefing on Saturday, two U.S. defense officials said they were working with the FBI and counterintelligence authorities to recover as much debris from the balloon as possible, including whatever equipment was onboard and "any material of intelligence value."

A senior defense official said the administration has had several days to investigate what the balloon was doing and how — as well as why China might have sent it in the first place.

"We don't know exactly all the benefits that will derive. But we have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities," the senior defense official said. "And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more."

Authorities said they may use uncrewed underwater vessels that can lift the structure up to the surface and place it on a salvage ship. Navy divers were also available. The debris splashed down in 47-foot-deep water, making the recovery effort easier than had been originally expected.

China has denied that the balloon was used for spying and instead said it was conducting weather research.

James Flaten, a University of Minnesota professor who works with NASA to teach students using high-altitude balloons, told NPR that it would be possible for a high-altitude balloon launched from China to reach the U.S., but added that China may not have had much control over its path at such high altitudes.

"I'm not saying they're telling the truth," Flaten said, "I'm just saying that's a plausible story."

Diplomacy between the U.S. and China is again up in the air

The balloon's intrusion into U.S. airspace scuttled a planned meeting of high-level officials from the U.S. and China, and it's unclear if or when the trip will be rescheduled.

On Friday, as the balloon was floating some 60,000 feet above the mainland U.S., Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to China.

Though there's been speculation that China sent the balloon over North America on purpose, some doubt that the country was trying to provoke the U.S. at the very moment it was set to host the country's top diplomat.

"China has an interest in inserting some more stability into the relationship," Dave Shullman, senior director of the China Global Hub at the Atlantic Council, told NPR's Weekend Edition.

Shullman said China is hoping to repair its relationship with the U.S. as it struggles with some thorny domestic issues, such as its ongoing efforts to stem the spread of COVID and invigorate its economy.

With that backdrop, it would have been strange for China to intentionally sabotage Blinken's trip, Shullman suggested. "I think they genuinely wanted this visit to go well," he added.

Blinken said he was still prepared to "visit Beijing as soon as conditions allow." But Shullman noted that China's annual legislative session is scheduled for March and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is rumored to be traveling to Taiwan in April, which could further strain ties between the U.S. and China.

The response from Congress has fallen along party lines

Republicans have criticized the Biden administration for not shooting down the balloon earlier, before it was able to traverse several states and glide over sensitive military installations.

Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday that he believes China was attempting to gather intelligence on U.S. military sites.

"If you look at the path, and you put X's where all our sensitive missile defense and nuclear weapons facilities are, I believe that they were trying to gain information on how to defeat the command and control of our nuclear weapons systems and our missile defense systems," Turner said. "That's a crisis."

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an appearance on ABC's This Week that he thinks China was trying to embarrass the U.S. and flex its power on the world stage.

"This was deliberate. They did this on purpose," Rubio said. "The message they were trying to send is what they believe internally, and that is that the United States is a once-great superpower that's hollowed-out, that's in decline."

But the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, praised the Biden administration's handling of the aerial incident.

"For all the mouth breathing nonsense and craven posturing we've endured, this was handled with textbook competence," Himes tweeted. "We watched this thing and its capabilities and then took it down where it was safe and maximally recoverable for [counter-intelligence] purposes. Ours now."

House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries thanked President Biden and the military for "putting the safety of the American people first."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]