A diplomatic rift between China and the United States deepened on Tuesday with Beijing accusing Washington of flying high-altitude balloons into its airspace and that of other countries, as the US military examined debris of a suspected Chinese spy balloon it downed this month.
The Chinese balloon, which Beijing denies was a spy vessel, spent a week flying over the United States and Canada before President Joe Biden ordered it shot on Feb 4. The US military has since carried out three more shootdowns as it combs the skies for objects that were not being captured by radar, reports Reuters.
The White House said on Tuesday it was still searching for debris from the most recent, unmanned objects, and had not seen any indication they were part of China's spy program. But they exposed Washington's heightened sense of alert as the standoff over the balloon delays efforts to reset bilateral relations.
China says the balloon shot down on Feb 4 was a civilian weather-monitoring aircraft. Beijing has accused Washington of sending its own balloons into Chinese airspace, and on Tuesday alleged those objects had flown above other countries as well.
US balloons "flew around the world and illegally entered the airspaces of China and other relevant countries at least ten times" since May 2022, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, without providing details or evidence.
China asserts numerous disputed territorial claims, including Taiwan and parts of the East and South China Seas, where the US military says it routinely operates according to international law.
The White House has disputed China's allegations. Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, tweeted on Monday: "Any claim that the US government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC is false."
Washington has imposed sanctions on six Chinese entities it says are tied to the balloon, an action which drew criticism from Beijing on Tuesday. But there are some signs the two countries are still seeking to inject stability into turbulent relations.
Biden, who has repeatedly vowed to protect US airspace and criticised China over the balloon, has also said that he does not believe relations between the two countries were weakened by the incident.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who postponed a planned trip to Beijing over the balloon, is considering meeting China's top diplomat Wang Yi in Munich this week, sources said.