President Joe Biden said Monday the US “did the right thing” when it shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon on Saturday and maintained that he always wanted to bring it down “as soon as it was appropriate.”
Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from Camp David, Biden was asked if the incident changes the US-China relationship. He replied: “No.”
“We made it clear to China what we’re going to do, they understand our position, we’re not going to back off,” the president said. “We did the right thing, and there’s not a question of weakening or strengthening, it’s just the reality.”
Asked by CNN’s Phil Mattingly why the Chinese would commit such a brazen act, the President paused and then laughed.
“They’re the Chinese government,” he said.
On Saturday, the US military shot down the high-altitude balloon after it drifted off the East Coast near the Carolinas. The Pentagon later admitted that three other suspected Chinese spy balloons had transited the continental United States undetected under the Trump administration, which officials said were not detected during those years due to an “awareness gap.” Those incidents were not made public until Saturday.
But Biden denied that he ordered this balloon shot down because it became known to the public, telling reporters that once the balloon came “into the United States from Canada I told the Defense Department I wanted to shoot it down as soon as it was appropriate.”
“They concluded we should not shoot it down over land, it was not a serious threat, and we should wait until it got across the water,” he said.
China has acknowledged the balloon belonged to them, but insisted it was a civilian research vessel and was not being used for surveillance. The Chinese government expressed its “strong dissatisfaction and protest” against the decision, accusing the US of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice,” but the US maintains the presence of the balloon was a violation of international law.
The president said it was “not a question of trusting China” when asked how the US could still trust the country after what appears to be a blatant act of espionage.
“The question of the balloon and attempting to spy on the United States is something that we anticipate from China,” he said.
He added that when China was asked about the balloon, they didn’t deny it was theirs – “They just denied what it was.”
Other members of the administration sounded slightly less optimistic about relations between the two countries.
National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby noted earlier Monday that, in recent months, there had been serious efforts to try to reset US-Chinese relations, including the opening of more channels of communication between Washington and Beijing. Last year, Biden met with Xi for several hours in Bali, Indonesia – a meeting that was widely seen as a key moment in ongoing efforts to reset the two countries’ fraught relationship.
“Clearly this incident hasn’t helped that process,” Kirby said, describing the balloon flying over the United States as an “egregious violation of our sovereign airspace.”
The entire incident has simply done “nothing to help improve US-China bilateral relations,” Kirby added bluntly.
Biden spent the weekend at Camp David preparing for his upcoming State of the Union speech. He said the incident did not change the contents of the speech, or how he planned to talk about foreign policy.
Asked if he talked to US partners in Latin America about a Chinese balloon that had been spotted there, Biden said the “Defense Department has, I have not talked to our partners in the region.”
CNN’s Betsy Klein and MJ Lee contributed to this report.