Suspected Spy Balloon Hampers China’s Efforts to Ease Tensions With U.S.

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A balloon suspected to have come from China and seen floating over Montana has suddenly upstaged a long-anticipated visit to Beijing by the American secretary of state and threatens to undercut efforts to reduce Beijing and Washington’s simmering antagonism.

Pentagon officials disclosed on Thursday that they had detected the “intelligence-gathering balloon, most certainly launched by the People’s Republic of China,” over the state that is home to about 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

While the Pentagon played down the potential value of the balloon for acquiring intelligence, the public reaction by Biden administration officials underscored how brittle and delicate relations with Beijing have become, even over one balloon. The defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, held a meeting about the balloon with senior U.S. defense officials while he was in the Philippines, and President Biden “was briefed and asked for military options,” a Pentagon official told reporters.

The balloon threatens to become a very public irritant looming over the planned two-day visit to Beijing starting Sunday by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official who is now a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said the timing of the balloon flight was at least maladroit.

China is also smarting over the United States’ announcement on Thursday that it would expand its military presence in the Philippines, gaining access to four more sites that potentially could be used to marshal forces to deter or respond to Chinese military threats to Taiwan.

“This balloon surveillance mission really demonstrates that even when Xi is trying to improve the tone of the relationship and the rhetoric softens,” Mr. Thompson said of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, “there is no interest on Beijing’s part to act with restraint or amend its behavior in ways that actually contribute to genuinely improving the condition of the relationship.”

The first official reaction from Beijing to the Pentagon’s accusations about the balloon was muted. Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, did not confirm that the balloon was China’s.

“We’ve noted the reports and are checking the situation,” she said, “and I want to emphasize that before the facts are clear, speculation and hype will not help to bring about an appropriate solution to the issues.” Asked again about the balloon, Ms. Mao said that both the U.S. and Chinese governments should stay calm and “handle this with prudence.”

“China is a responsible country, always strictly abides by international law, and has no intention of violating any sovereign country’s territory or airspace,” she said.

China’s Ministry of National Defense, which usually comments on military issues, did not give any comment.

Ms. Mao’s noncommittal comments left open the possibility that China’s foreign ministry was waiting for instructions from military commanders or from party leaders about what to say about the accusation from Washington. When China held an antisatellite test in 2007, firing a missile to shatter its own weather satellite and alarming Washington, the ministry took 12 days to confirm the news.

But the Global Times, a Communist Party-run newspaper that has become a vehicle for pugnacious, sometimes quasi-official reactions from Beijing, suggested that the balloon reports were in line with what it called U.S. efforts to “create a Cold War atmosphere and exacerbate China-U.S. tensions.”

Plans for Mr. Blinken’s trip to Beijing firmed up in November, when Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi met in Bali and agreed to try to rein in tensions. Volatile strains have built up over Taiwan; technological barriers and bans; human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and resulting American sanctions on Chinese officials; and, most broadly, over a growing military rivalry across Asia and the Pacific.

Mr. Blinken would be the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Beijing in over four years. After the balloon news broke, a chorus of Republican politicians in Washington urged the Biden administration to take a tougher approach to China.

“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in a statement on Twitter.

Mr. McCarthy has said that as speaker he plans to visit Taiwan — the democratically ruled island that Beijing claims as its territory — which could prompt China to hold another round of intimidating military maneuvers near the island, similar to the ones it held last year when Mr. McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan.

Pentagon officials have refused to disclose many details about the balloon, including its size and features, making it harder for outside experts to assess its military intent and value. “We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area,” a senior Department of Defense official told reporters.

The once-humble balloon is one of many technologies that China’s military forces have seized on as a potential tool in their rivalry with the United States and other powers. Other advanced machinery includes drones and hypersonic glide vehicles that can maneuver at high speeds in the atmosphere.

In studies and newspaper articles, People’s Liberation Army experts have tracked the efforts by the United States, France and other countries to use advanced high-altitude balloons for intelligence collection and for coordinating battlefield operations. New materials and technologies, they have said, have made balloons more resilient, maneuverable and far-ranging than past generations of balloons.

“Technological advances have opened a new door for the use of balloons,” one article in the Liberation Army Daily — the main newspaper of China’s military — stated last year. Another article in the same newspaper noted that airships in the upper reaches of the atmosphere could also become like “a thousand eyes” helping to monitor outer space.

Taiwan’s defense ministry has said that in early 2022, China flew balloons over the island. The balloon sent over the United States may be used to collect information on air defense systems or atmospheric conditions, said Su Tzu-yun, an analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei. American forces would have little trouble following the balloon now, even at much higher altitudes than those spotted over Taiwan, he said.

“Basically, they’re very obvious, and because of their large volume, they’re very easily tracked in time by radar,” Mr. Su said.

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.