China’s Balloon Dispute Aims Attention at Xi’s Leadership

The Chinese balloon that bumbled its way across the United States has launched a thousand questions about its real intent.

But it is also focusing the world’s attention on the prospect that the communications and control within Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s government and his vaunted security apparatus may be less coherent — or even less functional — than the image he so confidently projects.

The stakes today are high. Relations between Washington and Beijing have frayed, and competition between the two sides has intensified, fueling fears that the wrong move could spark an accidental confrontation between the powerful rivals.

The United States says the vessel was a “high-altitude surveillance balloon.” China maintains it was a civilian airship that had flown off course while gathering meteorological data. Whether the inflatable craft was there by mistake or a brazen military stunt, its emergence raises questions about how China is navigating its growing position as a global power.

“What has been particularly damaging for China, both internationally and domestically, are the questions this raises about competence and how they’re reinforcing doubts about Xi Jinping’s leadership,” said Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration and author of a recent book, “Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise.”

It’s unclear to what degree the incident was avoidable, but it comes at a time when Mr. Xi is thought to be at the peak of his powers after having shattered norms last year by securing a third term and making national security a cornerstone of his rule.

With Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken canceling his trip to Beijing, Mr. Xi missed an opportunity to push back against the mounting pressure Washington is applying on China through security ties with partners across Asia and restrictions on semiconductor technology. That would have allowed Mr. Xi to devote more attention to pressing domestic matters such as reviving China’s weakened economy.

The balloon incident follows other apparent miscalculations, including the haphazard unwinding of his, at times, suffocating “zero Covid” measures following widespread protests, and his agreeing to a “no limits” partnership with Russia only weeks before the invasion of Ukraine.

“It’s really quite a paradox if you think about it, because it’s the beginning of his third term,” Ms. Shirk added. “He should be at the high point. And yet we see all of this negative feedback.”

Questions about Mr. Xi’s judgment and that of his military and intelligence services now cloud assessments about how China would handle another crisis in a far more dangerous setting such as over the heavily militarized Taiwan Strait — a foreboding scenario given the growing probability of a confrontation as Washington and Beijing remain locked in a great power rivalry.

In the past, the Chinese government “could adapt flexibly to a problem. They put economic development first,” Ms. Shirk said. “That just hasn’t been the case under Xi Jinping in the last few years. So that means you can’t predict the future. That’s the reason we all feel it’s a much more dangerous situation.”

That unpredictability appears to have extended to China’s most recent response to the balloon, which was dramatically shot out of the air by a U.S. fighter jet on Saturday. After first expressing regret for the balloon’s emergence, China hardened its stance on Monday.

Xie Feng, a vice foreign minister, lodged a protest with the American Embassy in Beijing, chastising the United States for destroying the vessel and accusing Washington of reversing the progress made in improving relations after Mr. Xi and President Biden met face-to-face in November in Indonesia.

“China resolutely opposes and strongly protests this, and urges the United States not to take further actions that harm China’s interests, and not to escalate or expand the tension,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Mr. Xie said that China reserved the right to respond as necessary.

Regardless of Beijing’s protests, U.S. Navy divers are scouring the waters off the coast of South Carolina to recover the balloon’s parts.

For China, the ill-timed flight of the craft and its costly discovery over the continental United States suggests a lack of coordination between the country’s military and other organs of the government, analysts say.

“It shows the national security coordination process to prevent incidents like this are not yet functional in the way that they need to be,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and a former U.S. defense official.

There are other theories about how this could have happened. China’s sprawling bureaucracy might simply be too big to track the whereabouts of all its high-altitude balloons across the globe, and anticipate when their locations might set off alarm. (After a spate of reports in recent days, China acknowledged on Monday that another Chinese balloon is floating around Latin America, also, according to Beijing, errantly.)

M. Taylor Fravel, the director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on China’s military, said he thought that China’s leadership would not have authorized the balloon’s flight to the United States had it been aware of its journey, given Mr. Blinken’s visit.

“I can only speculate about the intentions of the unit that launched the mission: They may have been unaware or unconcerned about any political fallout should it be discovered, or perhaps they were executing longstanding plans without any attention to the diplomatic calendar,” Mr. Fravel said in an email.

Mr. Thompson said it was possible China’s military orchestrated the flap, as it would stand to benefit from heightened and sustained tension with the United States. Surveillance balloons are thought to be operated by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, which is also responsible for China’s nuclear and conventional missile arsenal. Taiwan’s military confirmed last year that Chinese balloons that were spotted floating above the self-governing island were operated by the rocket force, though it said the balloons were likely being used to observe the weather.

The Chinese military has caught other parts of the government off guard before. In 2011, the People’s Liberation Army conducted its first test of its new J-20 stealth fighter just hours ahead of a meeting in Beijing between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Hu Jintao, the Chinese leader at the time. The test flight was interpreted as a bid to undermine the visit, which was held to improve defense ties. Mr. Hu, who was a decidedly less powerful leader compared to Mr. Xi, appeared unaware of the test when prodded by Mr. Gates.

In another incident in 2007, China’s foreign ministry declined for days to comment on a successful antisatellite missile test conducted by the rocket force, then known as the Second Artillery Corps. The silence at the time underscored the secrecy of China’s military, which only communicated tests of that nature directly to Mr. Hu.

In all cases, the inability to peer into China’s thinking — which has been exacerbated by a widening mistrust between Washington and Beijing — has only added to the sense of volatility in the relationship.

“What the balloon incident totally reinforces is the complete lack of transparency into Chinese decision-making,” Mr. Thompson said. “This is a feature, not a bug of their system. And it’s going to happen again. If events are fast-moving, the government doesn’t have nimble decision-making structures. They can’t communicate effectively during a rapidly evolving crisis, which really bodes ill for efforts right now with China.”

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting.

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