By Trevor Hunnicutt and Martin Quin Pollard
WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States said on Monday it still did not know the origin or purpose of three aerial objects that its military shot down over the weekend, as Washington and Beijing traded accusations about high-altitude balloons.
While American and Canadian officials struggled to explain the presence of the objects, a White House spokesperson stressed that there was no reason to believe that they were anything other than human-made.
“There is no, again, no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
The saga began with a suspected Chinese spy balloon that drifted across the United States and was shot down by the U.S. military off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.
Since then, U.S. fighter jets have downed three more mysterious objects over North American airspace starting on Friday.
“We have not yet been able to definitively assess what these most recent objects are,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said at a news briefing.
U.S. military fighter jets on Sunday downed an octagonal object over Lake Huron, the Pentagon said. On Friday, an object was shot down over sea ice near Deadhorse, Alaska, and a third, cylindrical in shape, was destroyed over Canada’s Yukon on Saturday.
The debris from the items, which has not been found, should “tell us a lot,” Kirby said.
The objects, flying at altitudes of between 20,000 and 40,000 feet, were considered a risk to air traffic, he said, although they did not pose a threat to people on the ground. They also were shot down because U.S. authorities could not rule out that they were spying, he said.
Closer scrutiny of airspace may partially explain why so many new objects have been found. U.S. officials told Reuters that the military has been adjusting how it examines radar data, allowing it to spot smaller, slower-moving items.
CHINA ACCUSES U.S. OF ILLEGAL BALLOONS
China said it had no information about any of the three objects. Washington called the first object, the Chinese craft, a surveillance balloon while China has insisted it was a weather-monitoring vessel blown badly off course.
The Chinese balloon triggered an uproar in Washington, shaking up the already contentious relationship between the world’s two biggest economies and prompting U.S. President Joe Biden’s top diplomat, Antony Blinken, to cancel his scheduled trip to Beijing last week.
China on Monday widened its dispute with the United States over aerial surveillance, claiming that U.S. high-altitude balloons had flown over its airspace without permission more than 10 times since the beginning of 2022. The White House denied the assertion.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that the alleged U.S. balloon flights last year were illegal but did not describe the balloons as military or for espionage purposes.
At Friday’s White House briefing, Kirby said: “There is no U.S. surveillance aircraft in Chinese airspace. I’m not aware of any other craft that we’re flying over into Chinese airspace.”
When pressed whether any U.S. craft was being used over Chinese-claimed airspace in Taiwan and the South China Sea, he declined to specify further.
China asserts numerous disputed territorial claims, including in waters in the East and South China Seas, where the U.S. military says it routinely operates according to international law.
The White House, which has tried to tamp down rhetoric around China following the balloon incident, took a noticeably sharper tone on Monday.
“This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control,” Adrienne Watson, another White House national security spokesperson, said in a statement.
“It has repeatedly and wrongly claimed the surveillance balloon it sent over the United States was a weather balloon and to this day has failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace and the airspace of others.”
Asked if the balloon incident and Beijing’s response had set back U.S.-China relations, Kirby said during his briefing: “It has certainly not helped us move forward in the way that we wanted to move.”
SEARCHING FOR DEBRIS
As the search for the three recently downed objects continued, Senate Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell demanded more information from the Biden administration.
“The administration has still not been able to divulge any meaningful information about what was shot down. What in the world is going on?” McConnell said in the Senate.
In Canada’s Yukon province, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he toured with some Canadian forces who will be leading recovery efforts on the ground.
Heavy snow was making conditions hazardous for the recovery efforts in what Trudeau said was a “fairly large area” between Dawson City and Mayo in central Yukon.
“This is a very serious situation,” Trudeau said, adding that he would speak to Biden fact-to-face about the objects in March, when the U.S. president is expected to make a visit to Canada.
A Canadian coast guard ship and two helicopters were helping the search and recovery in Lake Huron, said Joyce Murray, the country’s minister of fisheries and oceans.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Michael Martina and Katharine Jackson in Washington, Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing; Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Don Durfee and Cynthia Osterman)