Why the Chinese Spy Balloon is a Huge Embarrassment for Beijing

The unfolding spy balloon saga appears to have dizzied China's diplomats, who have struggled for credibility in the past days by going on the offensive.

Observers continue to be confounded by the decision-making process in Beijing, as well as by the Chinese government's choice to portray itself as the wronged party, having begun with a conciliatory tone that might have salvaged its reputation amid the fresh diplomatic fallout.

Just weeks after welcoming Antony Blinken's widely expected visit to Beijing, China responded to the U.S. secretary of state's decision to postpone the trip by claiming it had not been confirmed in the first place.

After images of the surveillance balloon's shoot-down were plastered over newspaper front pages across the world, China sent a formal warning to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Xie Feng, the vice foreign minister many are tipping to become China's next envoy to Washington, told the U.S. "not to take any further actions that may undermine China's interests or escalate or expand tensions."

U.S. Navy Recovers China's Spy Balloon Debris
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on February 5, 2023. A U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter aircraft shot down the balloon a day earlier. Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson/U.S. Navy

Speculation remains as to Beijing's motives for launching the 200-foot tall craft so close to Blinken's visit to China, which would've been the first by America's top diplomat in five years. President Joe Biden, asked a similar question at the White House on Monday, quipped: "They're the Chinese government."

Some believe the balloon could have deviated off course unintentionally, its surveillance mission conceivably unknown to China's top leaders, who were busy organizing a public detente with U.S. counterparts. Others say the Chinese government's only mistake was being caught.

Following further U.S. disclosures, Chines officials have since acknowledged at least one other allegedly errant balloon over Latin America and the Caribbean.

What's more certain, however, is that by first trying to privately salvage Blinken's plans before the balloon's presence over the continental United States was made public, Beijing then appeared to underestimate the incident's impact on Washington, its inevitable return to bellicosity finally bursting its attempt at charming the West after years of self-isolation during the pandemic.

"China's evolving response, at first seemingly contrite but now down right confrontational, will not do Beijing any favors in Washington," said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank.

"It is highly unlikely that Chinese leader Xi Jinping was unaware of this high-risk program's existence, even if he was perhaps not informed that a mission was underway days before Secretary Blinken's planned travel to Beijing," Singleton told Newsweek.

"I suspect Beijing would like this embarrassing episode to blow over as soon as possible. China will almost certainly not take kinetic, retaliatory action against U.S. aerial assets legally operating in the Indo-Pacific," he said.

Having stuck rigidly to its argument that the balloon was a "civilian airship" that was collecting weather data and later blown off course by forces beyond its control, the Chinese leadership now face the very real prospect of having some or part of its technologies and methods revealed to the world.

Washington, which likewise hasn't shifted from its initial assessment, insists the balloon deliberately traversed the U.S. in a bid to surveil sensitive sites, ultimately failing to achieve its objective because of effective countermeasures. Senior officials are aware that the American public expects the Biden administration to disclose further details about its ongoing recovery operation off South Carolina.

Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of NORAD and USNORTHCOM, said Monday that the aim was "to provide as much information as we can to the media, the public, Congress—everybody that has an interest in what we're actually finding."

The White House didn't answer Newsweek's questions about the potential return of the balloon debris to China.

Mao Ning, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, said Tuesday that the craft "does not belong to the U.S. It belongs to China."

"All the evidence gives China limited options other than to stick with the victim card, as backing down is politically impossible at this moment," said Crystal Tu, an assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, Taiwan's top military think tank. "Given China's refutable statements and 'off-guard' responses so far, these may indicate that this was unexpected."

"I am particularly puzzled by China's decision-making process. For example, how China, as a major player in World Meteorological Organization with a regional center right in Beijing, may have neglected professional weather forecasts before such a deployment," Tu told Newsweek.

"Winter jet streams from the intensified polar vortex out of Siberia is no longer an uncommon weather event. Back in mid-January, the chief meteorologist from Environment Canada already provided a forecast that the polar vortex would shift at the end of January and hit Canada in February," Tu said.

"From public statements, it is clear that the U.S. government already reached federal-wide consensus on the non-civilian nature of the craft. Further examination and analysis of the recovered debris may provide concrete evidence about Chinese technology supply chains and readiness," she said.

Republicans leaders in Congress, meanwhile, continue to question the Biden administration's handling of the incident, in particular the decision not to bring the balloon down earlier.

Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, who chairs the GOP-led House Armed Services Committee, said in a public statement: "I remain deeply concerned by the Biden administration's decision to allow the spy balloon to traverse the United States."

By failing to immediately inform the public of the balloon's presence, the White House "had hoped to hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people," Rogers said on Saturday.

Others in the national security establishment argue the incident presents a rare opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to unite for a common cause.

"Let's blame the Chinese Communist Party. Let's stop pointing fingers at each other. We're on the same side," H.R. McMaster, former President Donald Trump's national security adviser, told CBS Mornings on Monday.

Biden on Tuesday hinted at the balloon incident in his State of the Union address, saying: "[I]f China's threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country."

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