Monday, February 06, 2023


It might be hard to persuade most Americans of this, but the spy balloon incident has not been a triumph for China. On Saturday, after Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his trip to Beijing in response to the incident, Lily Kuo of The Washington Post wrote:
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 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.”
In The New York Times today, David Pierson writes:
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....

“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.” ...

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....

“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.”
Republicans want you to believe they hate China, but their #1 enemy is, as always, the Democratic Party. So they're helping China save face, even after Biden's shootdown of the spy balloon. The Republican reaction to the incident is summarized in the headline of a Mike Pompeo opinion piece at
China spy balloon fiasco exposed Biden's astonishing weakness and Xi will drive a truck through it
And much of the mainstream media agrees that President Biden is the leader who looks weak. Here's Pierson's New York Times colleague David Sanger:
It may be months before American intelligence agencies can compare the audacious flight of a Chinese surveillance balloon across the country to other intrusions on America’s national security systems, to determine how it ranks.
(Pierson said the balloon "bumbled its way across the United States," but to Sanger, the flight was "audacious.")
... for pure gall, there was something different about the balloon....

“We don’t know what the intelligence yield was for the Chinese,” said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown professor who advised President Barack Obama on China and Asia with the National Security Council. “But there is no doubt it was a gross violation of sovereignty,” something the Chinese object to vociferously when the United States flies over and sails through the islands China has built from sandbars in the South China Sea.

“And this made visceral the China challenge,” Mr. Medeiros said, “to look up when you are out walking your dog, and you see a Chinese spy balloon in the sky.”
It's an appalling violation of sovereignty, even though it's just like what America does routinely to China. It's different ... why? Because you can see it happening while walking your dog.

And at Politico's Playbook, it's clear what really matters in all this:
China deflates Biden’s SOTU swagger

... When Biden ascends the House rostrum tomorrow to deliver his State of the Union address, the buzz will hover tens of thousands of feet higher, where a Chinese surveillance balloon floated until it was shot down Saturday off the South Carolina coast.

It’s a distraction Democrats aren’t exactly thrilled about.

... Republicans have spent days casting Biden as weak on China and suggesting he was too slow to confront foreign spying on American soil. As of last night, House GOP leaders were still entertaining holding a vote before the speech chiding the administration’s response.
This was not a good week for China. A major component of its global espionage program was publicly exposed. The balloon itself was shot down. The world now sees that the seemingly all-powerful Xi Jinping might not have full control of his own government's foreign policy apparatus.

But Republicans and much of the press want to assure you that Biden is the screwup here. And for now, that's the dominant narrative.

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