China Tries to Depict Furor Over Spy Balloon as Sign of U.S. Decline

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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 United States’ 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 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. Yet nowhere in China’s response has it acknowledged the balloon’s cost to Beijing’s own credibility and the mounting evidence that it was all too willing to spy on its neighbors and beyond.

On Tuesday, China sought to show it had 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

That gives Mr. Xi little room to project anything but toughness over the balloon.

“Because of the propaganda in recent years, it is not possible for China to make concessions or apologize to the United States. Chinese people cannot accept a weak attitude from their government,” said Xing Yue, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

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 American balloons had flown over Chinese airspace on more than 10 occasions since May of last year, a claim the White House immediately denied.

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On Tuesday, Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, 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 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 Mr. Zheng, who has served as an adviser to senior officials. Unlike more strident commentators in China, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 flash point could take place in the spring, when Mr. Xi is expected to meet with President Vladimir V. 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. Mr. 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 spokesman, said administration officials were “committed to keeping lines of communication open” between Washington and Beijing.

It is harder for China to send such signals because most of its public messaging is crafted with a domestic audience in mind. Still, there are strong incentives for Beijing to lower the temperature, none more urgent than the need to revive an economy battered by years of stringent Covid restrictions.

In a speech last week at the U.S.-China Business Council, Xu Xueyuan, chargé d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy in the United States, said she hoped the balloon incident will not discourage American businesses from investing in China.

“This incident shouldn’t be allowed to offset the efforts we have put in place in stabilizing bilateral relations,” Ms. Xu said, according to a foreign ministry statement.

The question now is which country will offer an olive branch first. Any such gesture comes at the risk of appearing to accommodate the other side. China is finding it hard to appear strong without further inflaming tensions with the United States, said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former National Security Council director for China. “When forced to choose, they will prioritize their domestic audience over external audiences,” he said.

“Above all, though, I sense that the Chinese are eager to move on,” he said. “They would like to put the spy balloon issue behind them without appearing to offer any concessions in the process.”

Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington. Olivia Wang contributed research from Hong Kong.


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