Fallout from Alleged Spy Balloon Ends China’s «Great Propaganda Victory»


Until it was shot down, it appeared to be floating peacefully in US airspace. But on the ground, the alleged use of a spy balloon triggered a diplomatic maelstrom, which experts say has undermined efforts to repair US-China relations.

“This incident is incredibly embarrassing for Beijing. It reinforces concerns that most Western nations justifiably harbor about China’s grand ambitions for power,» Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank for China, told NBC News on Saturday. Washington, DC.

He added that Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s decision on Friday to indefinitely postpone his visit to China had defeated what would have been a «major propaganda victory» for Beijing, «in essence, a signal that the United States sent its top envoy to China and not the other». reverse.»

Blinken, who was scheduled to leave Washington for Beijing on Friday night, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the United States was «an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision ) to take this step on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions we were prepared to have.» Blinken’s visit would have been the first to China by a US secretary of state since 2018.

Now «Chinese officials are in damage control mode,» Singleton said.

The sending of the balloon over the United States by Secretary of State Antony Blinken was «an irresponsible act.»Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images file

First seen over Montana, which is home to one of three US nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, the massive white orb, which is about the size of three school buses, heading southeast over Kansas and Missouri at 60,000 feet.

Describing it as a «high-altitude surveillance balloon,» Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Thursday that «the government took immediate action to protect itself against the collection of sensitive information.» When asked why the United States did not shoot down the balloon, Ryder said the government had ruled it out because of the «potential for debris and property damage» to people and structures on the ground.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Friday that the United States had been tracking the balloon since at least Tuesday, when it was first reported to President Joe Biden.

Biden said Saturday that the United States would «take care of it» and later US officials said he had been shot down off the coast of South Carolina.

By then, curiosity about it had gripped the nation. Blurry videos have been posted on social media and search phrases like «where is the spy balloon now?» and «spy balloon tracker» have been trending on Google.

China’s Foreign Ministry admitted the balloon was its own in a statement on Friday, but insisted it was «a civil aircraft used for research, mainly for meteorological purposes.»

In a separate statement on Saturday, he said Wang Yi had spoken with Blinken and they had «communicated about how to deal with accidental incidents in a calm and professional manner.»

The reading came hours after the Pentagon said it had observed another Chinese surveillance balloon flying over Latin America, without providing further details on its location.

Chinese media outlets have also rejected the claim that the balloon was used for spying, while netizens have also mocked the claim on social media.

“This has nothing to do with military reconnaissance or surveillance,” Zhou Bo, a retired senior colonel in the Chinese military and now a senior fellow at the Center for International Strategy and Security think tank, told NBC News on Saturday.

“This is an accident, and we have expressed our regrets about this. And I see no reason why the US government shouldn’t believe it, except to make political use of it. So this should end,” he added.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on February 1, 2023.
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Tuesday. Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP

Zhao Minghao, a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai Fudan University, said the Chinese Foreign Ministry had made extensive preparations for Blinken’s visit.

«From the perspective of China’s top leaders, they would not have wanted to interrupt the process of easing relations with the United States because this year is very important for China to revive the economy,» he said. the washington post. «It doesn’t make sense for China to sabotage the process.»

David Sacks, a researcher on US-China relations and security at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that economic discussions likely would have been high on the agenda.

“China was tactically pushing to unfreeze US-China relations in the near term as it grapples with a covid outbreak and an economic slowdown, and region-wide pushback to its more aggressive foreign policy,” he said.

He added that the balloon’s presence was likely a «bureaucratic mistake» at a bad time on the part of the Chinese military, and not a high-risk move by President Xi Jinping to undermine the US on the eve of Blinken’s visit.

«It was probably not intentional that China was flying this mission at this particular time,» he said.

While State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday that Blinken would be prepared to visit Beijing «as soon as conditions permit,» Republicans demanded answers from the Biden administration about the balloon, arguing that the incident shows that the US stance and policies are not deterring China. Singleton said it was unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“Overall, the administration was justified in indefinitely postponing the trip. China now has the responsibility to explain its actions and ultimately rein in its troublesome and irresponsible behavior,” he said. After that, the two parties can potentially meet, provided that eventual engagement is consistent with the principles of strict reciprocity and is in the mutual national interest of the United States.»

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