Fighter aircraft brought down surveillance balloon over and off the coast of South Carolina, in a mission ordered by President Joe Biden, says Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

China denies any claims of spying and says it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research.
China denies any claims of spying and says it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. (AP)

The United States has downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast on orders from President Joe Biden after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America, becoming the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The balloon was spotted on Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast. At about 2:40 pm EST, an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, puncturing it while it was about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Pentagon officials said.

Officials said the debris landed in 47 feet of water, shallowed than they had expected. It was not immediately clear how long the recovery would take. The Navy is taking the lead, supported by the Coast Guard.

Biden said he wanted the balloon downed on Wednesday, but was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water. 

Military officials determined that the bringing it down over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.

Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water.

Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean.

China's Foreign Ministry expressed strong dissatisfaction and opposition towards the US' use of force to attack its airship, a statement said.

READ MORE: US using balloon incident ‘as pretext to smear China’: Beijing

China rejects spying allegations

The Pentagon and other US officials say the balloon was being used for surveillance and intelligence collection, but officials have provided few details.

China denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research.

On Saturday, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs again emphasised that the balloon's journey was out of its control and urged the US not to "smear" it based on the balloon.

It said China "has always strictly followed international law, we do not accept any groundless speculation and hype. Faced with unexpected situations, both parties need to keep calm, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments and manage differences."

The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China's contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.

The suspected balloon prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a visit to China this week that had been expected to start on Friday.

The balloon was spotted over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America, while China did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.

READ MORE: Blinken scraps Beijing trip as 'spy balloon' soars across US

Source: TRTWorld and agencies