By Sam Cabral BBC News, Washington. The White House has said its decision to shoot down three objects flying over North American airspace this weekend was “out of an abundance of caution”.
The objects posed a threat to commercial flights and were downed in the “best interests” of the American people, spokesman John Kirby said.
The US is scrutinising its airspace more closely since the recent incursion of a suspected spy balloon from China.
China’s foreign ministry said on Monday that the US has flown balloons into its airspace more than 10 times in the past year.
“It’s not uncommon as well for the US to illegally enter the airspace of other countries,” spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters.
Speaking from the White House, Mr Kirby denied the allegation: “We are not flying surveillance balloons over China. I’m not aware of any other craft we’re flying into Chinese airspace.”
On 4 February, a high-altitude balloon was downed off the coast of South Carolina after moving for days over the continental US.
US officials said it originated in China and had been used to monitor sensitive military sites, but China denied the object was used for spying and said it was a weather monitoring device that had blown astray.
Since that first incident, American fighter jets have shot down three further high-altitude objects in as many days – over Alaska, Canada’s Yukon territory, and Michigan – and the administration has been under pressure to explain what the objects were.
Mr Kirby, who leads communications for the president’s National Security Council, said there were differences between the alleged Chinese spy balloon and the three objects downed over the weekend.
He said the latter did not pose “any direct threat to people on the ground” but were taken down “to protect our security, our interests and flight safety”.
Efforts are currently under way to collect debris from where the objects fell, but Mr Kirby noted the objects in Alaska and Canada are in remote terrain and will be difficult to find in winter weather conditions, while the object in Michigan lies in the deep waters of Lake Huron.
Officials have not yet been able to “definitively assess” what these objects are but have not ruled out the possibility they were conducting surveillance, he said.
He claimed that Beijing is operating a “balloon programme for intelligence collection” that has ties to the Chinese military and was not detected during the Trump administration.
“We detected it. We tracked it, and we have been carefully studying it to learn as much as we can,” he said.