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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

China tries to depict furor over spy balloon as sign of US decline

President Joe Biden shakes hands with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at his State of the Union address, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023.

By David Pierson

While many in the world see the Chinese spy balloon as a sign of Beijing’s growing aggressiveness, China has sought to cast the controversy as a symptom of the U.S.’ irrevocable decline.

Why else would a great power be spooked by a flimsy inflatable craft, China has argued, if not for a raft of internal problems like an intensely divided society and intractable partisan strife driving President Joe Biden to act tough on Beijing?

The balloon incident “has shown to the world how immature and irresponsible — indeed hysterical — the United States has been in dealing with the case,” read a recent editorial in the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece.

Chinese propaganda has tried to score points against the Biden administration, mocking it as flailing, overreacting and trying to outflank its hard-right Republican opponents to demonstrate who can stand taller against Beijing. Nowhere in China’s response has the government acknowledged the balloon’s cost to its own credibility and the mounting evidence that it was all too willing to spy on its neighbors and beyond.

Instead, on Tuesday, China sought to show it had already moved on from the incident. Much of the country’s messaging tended to strategic interests elsewhere in the world. China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, spoke of shoring up ties with the European Union to break the grip of U.S. influence within the bloc. And China welcomed Iran’s hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, to Beijing, where he’ll meet with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, in a sign of the two countries’ shared vision of a more multipolar world, free of Washington’s dominance.

Xi underscored that point last week when he delivered a speech at the Central Party School in which he proclaimed that “Chinese-style modernization” was a new model for human advancement that dispelled the notion that “modernization is equal to Westernization.”

The speech echoed more subtly the steady drumbeat of anti-American rhetoric that has filled the opinion sections of Chinese state media since the balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4. China has asserted that the United States overreacted by downing the balloon, which the Chinese insist was a civilian airship that was blown off course. American officials say the vessel belonged to a vast Chinese surveillance program designed to collect information on the military capabilities of countries around the world.

Tensions heated up over the weekend, with the U.S. shooting down three unidentified flying objects over North America, and China announcing it would down a mysterious craft near the Bohai Sea. It marked a moment of geopolitical brinkmanship amid deepening concerns about the trajectory of the relationship between China and the United States, now at its lowest point in decades.

At the heart of that disquiet are questions about the ability of each country’s leadership to manage nationalistic sentiment and steer the two powers away from a collision course.

As China’s most ardent nationalist leader in generations, Xi can’t be seen bowing to U.S. pressure without undermining his core promise to the Chinese people of rejuvenating the nation, a project he frames in civilizational terms as the East rising and the West declining.

China’s tone has shifted markedly in recent days. After at first uncharacteristically expressing regret for the balloon that emerged over Montana, China accused the United States of waging “information and public opinion warfare.” This week, Beijing said that high-altitude U.S. balloons had flown over Chinese airspace on more than 10 occasions since May of last year, a claim the White House immediately denied.

On Tuesday, Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, doubled down, asserting that the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars in developing high-altitude reconnaissance balloons and has transitioned those projects to military services. He accused the United States of using excessive force in shooting the balloon down. The U.S. needs to be careful not to “pull a muscle while flexing so hard,” he said.

Chinese state media has drawn attention to partisan divisions within the United States. It has suggested that the Biden administration shot down the airship to improve the president’s approval ratings and because he had been criticized by Republican lawmakers for not taking action sooner.

“The Biden administration’s decisions on the balloon episode were hijacked by U.S. domestic politics,” the People’s Daily said in an editorial.

That view isn’t restricted to state propaganda; it’s also held by more measured voices in the nation’s foreign policy community, such as Zheng Yongnian, an influential political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, who has warned that rising nationalism in the United States will likely give rise to more nationalism in China.

“The No. 1 global risk today is U.S. domestic politics,” said Zheng, who has served as an adviser to senior officials. Unlike more strident commentators in China, Zheng disagrees that the United States is in structural decline.

“The U.S. still has strong governance, it’s still the richest country, and it still has the biggest military,” Zheng said. But when he looks to Washington, he said, he sees a president straining to balance his desire to find common ground with Beijing and his need to stand firm against China.

In a political climate where hawkish views on China are being embraced by both parties, lawmakers could face growing pressure to demonstrate their resolve to confront Beijing. The Biden administration, for example, is accused of being soft on China by Republicans, despite frustrating Beijing by banning exports of critical semiconductor technology to China and by bolstering military ties with allies in the region, including Japan, the Philippines and Australia.

Zheng said China should avoid conflict with the United States and find areas of cooperation, such as combating climate change and supporting global health initiatives, that could reduce tension.

That could be difficult if Kevin McCarthy, the new House speaker, follows through on a suggestion he would visit Taiwan, risking a repeat of the massive military exercises China conducted when the former speaker, Nancy Pelosi, traveled to the self-governing island last year.

Another potential flashpoint could take place in the spring, when Xi is expected to meet with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Moscow. China has tacitly supported the war in Ukraine.

Analysts say there’s still room for the United States and China to stabilize ties. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, will both attend the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, which begins Friday. While no meeting between the two has been scheduled, Ned Price, a State Department spokesperson, said administration officials were “committed to keeping lines of communication open” between Washington and Beijing.

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