China fires weather service head amid US balloon fallout

China has reportedly fired the country’s head meteorologist amid heightened tensions with the US over a suspected surveillance balloon that made its way into American airspace.

Washington shot down the balloon over the weekend off the Carolina coast after it traversed above sensitive military sites across North America. Beijing has denied allegations that the balloon was sent for surveillance, insisting that the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft.

Zhuang Guotai, the head of the China Meteorological Administration, was reportedly fired from his post on Saturday in what was perceived to be an effort to mellow the tense situation before US president Joe Biden ordered the balloon to be shot down.

The agency hasn’t named a replacement for 60-year-old Mr Zhuang.

“The Chinese side has, after verification, repeatedly informed the US side of the civilian nature of the airship and conveyed that its entry into the US due to force majeure was totally unexpected,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement.

An F-22 jet fired an AIM-9X missile deflating the helium balloon and sending the payload toward the Atlantic Ocean. It was shot down after military officials determined that bringing down the balloon over land from an altitude of 60,000ft would pose an undue risk to the population.

Beijing has responded strongly to the US action, accusing Washington of using “indiscriminate use of force” which it said has seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilising Sino-US relations.

China’s vice foreign minister Xie Feng said he lodged a formal complaint with the US embassy on Sunday over the “attack on a Chinese civilian unmanned airship by military force”.

“However, the United States turned a deaf ear and insisted on indiscriminate use of force against the civilian airship that was about to leave the United States airspace, which obviously overreacted and seriously violated the spirit of international law and international practice,” Mr Xie said.

China would “resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies, resolutely safeguard China’s interests and dignity and reserve the right to make further necessary responses,” he added.

The balloon was first spotted by members of the public on Thursday as it flew over Montana, which is home to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

On Saturday, president Biden said he was informed of the balloon’s presence a day earlier, though this was not disclosed at the time. “On Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down, on Wednesday, as soon as possible,” he said.