For beach-walking South Carolinians, it would have been quite the Saturday afternoon spectacle. 

Two US fighter jets soaring above them, armed with air-to-air missiles. Then a launch.

From an altitude of 58,000ft, one of the two jets fired a single ‘Sidewinder’ short range missile. It was 2.39pm eastern US time.

Eyewitnesses on the ground in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, captured a moment which will jolt American-Chinese relations.

Four hundred miles to the north at the Pentagon in Virginia, military commanders monitored a complex operation.

From the amateur images snapped on the beach, the impact of the missile was clear. 11 miles above, the hit was spot on.

The balloon, a dot in the sky which had caused days of intrigue, amusement but diplomatic drama too, deflated in seconds.

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The payload below it fell away fast, falling more than 60,000ft into the Atlantic below.

In Beijing, it was approaching 4am. Officials there would have known immediately that their “weather balloon” had been downed. There is no question that they had been watching, if not controlling, its every move.

But it was several hours before their Foreign Ministry had composed the predictably angry statement of “strong dissatisfaction and protest against the US’s use of force to attack a civilian unmanned aircraft”.

As the sun rose over Beijing, it was disappearing on America’s eastern seaboard. But six miles off South Carolina’s shore, a flotilla of boats and ships was already beginning to arrive.

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Moment ‘spy balloon’ is shot down

Over an area spanning about seven miles, vessels and specialists from the US Coast Guard, the US Navy and the FBI had begun to collect debris.

In the days ahead, divers and unmanned submarines will comb the sea floor, conveniently shallow at just over 40ft. The weather over the next few days is good but this will still be a tricky operation.

It will be at least a day or two before a specialist recovery ship can be in place to lift larger bits of wreckage from the water.

The aim will be to harvest a potential goldmine of information and data from the debris. It’s likely that investigators will attempt to reconstruct the balloon’s payload and learn from it.

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‘They successfully took it down’

Among the things they will be interested to discover: was there any US technology inside the Chinese equipment? US officials have long suspected China of commercial and technology theft.

But beyond the spectacle on the beaches of the Carolinas, and beyond the cable news channels “balloon watch” gimmicks, make no mistake, this is an extremely serious moment.

There is no more important geo-political relationship than that between China and America.

It is a relationship that impacts us all and it was in a bad way before the curious white speck appeared in the skies over Montana.