The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China rushes to cap damage over suspected spy balloon as Blinken delays trip

An American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2017. (Andy Wong/AP)
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Beijing on Saturday offered a subdued rebuttal to Washington’s decision to delay a high-level visit after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was discovered hovering over the United States, derailing China’s recent efforts to repair its most important bilateral relationship.

Hours before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to take off, Washington postponed the trip, saying it “would not be appropriate” after the discovery of the airship floating around 60,000 feet above the central United States.

The Chinese surveillance balloon is flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet above the continental United States and is roughly the size of 2 or 3 buses. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Saturday that the presence of a Chinese airship in U.S. airspace was “completely an accident,” and was caused by westerly winds knocking the balloon off course. It reiterated claims that the balloon was for scientific research such as collecting weather data, and accused “some U.S. politicians and media” of taking advantage of the situation to discredit China, which “firmly opposes this.”

The ministry also said Beijing and Washington had never officially announced plans for Blinken’s visit. “The information that the U.S. releases [related to this visit] is their business, and we respect that,” it said.

Blinken had been expected to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the trip, and while few expected concrete results, officials on both sides hoped it would start the process of capping tensions over issues such as Taiwan, U.S. sanctions targeting Chinese tech companies, human rights and China’s friendship with Russia. The trip would help pave the way for a potential visit to the United States by Xi when San Francisco hosts an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in November.

The balloon incident, on the eve of such a critical meeting, raises questions over whether it was an accident or a deliberate effort by Beijing to send a message to Washington. (The Pentagon said Thursday that the air vehicle is not currently considered a threat to people on the ground.) In either case, it is a setback for China’s leadership.

The delay to Blinken’s trip comes after weeks of efforts by Chinese officials to slow the downward spiral of U.S.-China ties, as Beijing tries to rehabilitate its global image and revive its economy after almost three years of paralyzing anti-covid policies and strident “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

“From the perspective of China’s top leadership, they wouldn’t have wanted to disrupt the process of easing relations with the United States because this year is a very important year for China to revive the economy,” said Zhao Minghao, professor at the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “There is no point in China sabotaging the process.”

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“I think the foreign ministry must really be feeling the pain,” he said, noting the department would have already made extensive preparations for the visit.

Previous visits to China by U.S. officials have also been marred by provocative moves. In 2011, hours before receiving Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Beijing, the People’s Liberation Army staged a test flight of a new stealth fighter jet. When U.S. officials raised the issue with President Hu Jintao, the leader and his retinue appeared caught off guard.

“It suggests that there’s at least a lack of coordination somewhere in the government,” said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow in the Indo-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington. “They … got caught with their hand in the cookie jar with something that’s embarrassing and outwardly provocative at a time when the signal from the top was to take a more slightly more moderate position.”

“If China’s trying to send a message in advance of the meeting, they have ways to do it where they would have a lot more control,” he added.

To some, the balloon is a metaphor for the fragility of the U.S.-China relationship, with the incident only deepening mistrust between the two sides.

“The relationship is still very delicate after years of built-up tension,” wrote Rorry Daniels, managing director of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York. “I think both sides want to continue working toward a meeting, but it’s important at this fragile state in the relationship that the U.S. takes the time to get this right.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday that Blinken would be prepared to visit Beijing “as soon as conditions allow.”

China’s foreign affairs chief Wang Yi told Blinken over the phone Friday that Beijing does not “accept any groundless speculation and hype,” according to a readout released by Beijing. Wang also called on both sides to “communicate, avoid misjudgments, manage and control differences.”

The balloon blunder may afford Washington more leverage if and when a visit does happen.

“The most interesting question now is whether this mistake opens up any leverage for the U.S. in renegotiating the visit, and if the U.S. is adept enough to use that leverage to good effect,” said Neysun Mahboubi, a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

In China, coverage of the balloon saga was relatively subdued, with state-run outlets such as the Global Times tabloid accusing U.S. politicians of “hyping” the incident. Earlier in the week, a Global Times article argued that claims such balloons would be sent from China to the United States were “nonsense.” On Saturday that article appeared to have been deleted.

Internet users on the Weibo microblogging service joked that a lantern for this month’s Chinese Lantern Festival had flown too far. “Sorry about that,” one wrote. “Happy lantern festival.”

Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.