San Francisco Chronicle
China finds it’s hard to play down balloon
BEIJING — Since the spy balloon saga started, China has tried to play down the incident, maintaining that the United States is overreacting and that the vessel is mainly for gathering meteorological data.
But as American alarm and accusations have mounted about a broad surveillance program by Beijing, that strategy is increasingly coming under strain, forcing China into an awkward, at times self-contradictory position. Beijing is also starting to adopt a more confrontational tone, further raising the specter of escalation.
A Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Friday accused the United States of using “pure political manipulation” against China. Earlier in the week, China rebuffed an American request for a phone call between the two countries’ defense ministers. A Chinese diplomat said that even if U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had visited Beijing this week — Blinken scrapped the visit because of the balloon — it would not have done any good for bilateral relations.
“I think we’re past the stage” of the incident not becoming a big deal, Drew Thompson, a former U.S. Defense Department official on China, said of the Chinese attempts to minimize fallout. Thompson is now a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
China’s inconsistent messaging was feeding tensions even if that was not the direct goal, Thompson continued. He pointed to Beijing’s vague attribution of the balloon to an unspecified civilian company, and its claim that its wayward trajectory was an isolated mistake — a claim seemingly undermined by the revelation of a second Chinese balloon over Latin America.
“Unnamed companies, disingenuous statements, essentially a lack of credible messaging from Beijing drive a degree of discomfort in Washington that is not going to contribute to a stable
situation,” Thompson said.
When news of the balloon’s foray over the United States first emerged last week, it seemed possible that attention to it would quickly pass. The Biden administration said the vessel posed no threat to Americans. China, for its part, was unusually contrite, issuing a rare acknowledgment of fault and expressing regret.
China in recent months has striven for a more conciliatory tone in its diplomacy, compared to the abrasive “Wolf Warrior” style often assumed under China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Battered by three years of COVID-19 restrictions and an unsteady economy, Beijing seems intent on focusing on domestic issues and minimizing its conflicts on the world stage.
But it has become clear this week that the incident is not going to fade so easily.
On Thursday, the State Department laid out, in the most detail to date, its view that the balloon was part of a global surveillance fleet directed by China’s military. U.S. officials have also said that they have shared information on the espionage program with dozens of countries, and are weighing measures against Chinese companies or other bodies that may have been involved.
The U.S. domestic political calendar may also have contributed to the continually simmering tensions. Though he did not directly mention the balloon in his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Joe Biden promised to ward off Chinese threats to U.S. sovereignty, and declared that few world leaders would envy Xi. The president repeated those criticisms in a subsequent interview with PBS NewsHour, where he said the Chinese leader faced “enormous problems,” including a weakened economy.
China, probably unsurprisingly, has hit back, with state media bashing Biden’s speech. The Global Times, a nationalist Communist Party-run tabloid, said the address, including its singling out of China, “did not seem like a State of the Union by the president of a major country that considers itself a world leader.”
At a news conference Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, called Biden’s comments about Xi “highly irresponsible” and a “violation of basic diplomatic protocol.”
China’s Defense Ministry took a similarly hard line when it issued a statement Thursday explaining its rejection of a proposed phone call from its U.S. counterpart. It called the United States’ downing of the balloon an “irresponsible, serious mistake” that did not foster conditions for dialogue.
On Monday, China’s ambassador to France had made perhaps the most aggressive public comments yet, in an interview with a French television program. The ambassador, Lu Shaye, said that it would have been inappropriate for Blinken to visit China, anyway, given actions leading up to the visit that Lu described as anti-China. He cited the planned U.S. military expansion in the Philippines and arms sales to Taiwan.
Many Chinese political commentators have maintained that the United States is the driver of tensions, and that China is eager for a détente. But even in saying so, some have adopted a hawkish tone.
“It will be difficult for ChinaU.S. relations to return to a benign and healthy development track, and the United States should bear the main responsibility for this,” Shen Yi, a prominent professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, said in a column. He added that the balloon incident had “revealed a bit of America’s true face.”
Beijing has offered some olive branches. On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said China would welcome a visit from U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in response to Yellen’s statement this week that she still hoped to go.
The Global Times, despite attacking Biden’s State of the Union address, also published an opinion piece emphasizing the importance of Chinese and U.S. economic interdependence.