Mystery wrapped in a spy balloon: Why did China blow up Blinken visit?

Chinese Balloon-South Carolina
This image provided by the U.S. Navy shows sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Navy via AP) AP

Mystery wrapped in a spy balloon: Why did China blow up Blinken visit?

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China‘s intelligence officials, on the cusp of a meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Secretary General Xi Jinping, provided U.S. officials with a mystery wrapped in a balloon.

“The question is the timing: Why would they do this right before the secretary of state’s meeting with Xi Jinping?” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) said to the Washington Examiner. “It was a little bit of a shot across the bow.”

A newspaper photographer in Montana spotted the balloon last week as Blinken prepared to travel to Beijing for a meeting with Xi. The revelation derailed a process launched in November, when President Joe Biden met the Chinese Communist Party chief on the sidelines of an international summit in Indonesia and replaced that conversation with a face-saving parade of protests and denials.

“China’s our adversary, right? So, therefore, we meet when it’s in our advantage to meet,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday.


The aesthetics of a meeting play a large part in the calculations of officials in both capitals. In 2021, at the outset of the first face-to-face meeting between Chinese officials and the Biden team, a senior Politburo member asserted at the outset that the United States does not have “the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength” — a truculent message delivered, in violation of the agreed-upon protocol, before reporters were ushered out of the room.

“A visit between Blinken and his counterparts in Beijing should go forward but not right now; this is not the right time — just the optics of it,” Heritage Foundation research fellow Michael Cunningham said. “It sounds childish, but a lot of diplomacy is like this. It is symbolic.”

That symbolism is delaying a meeting that at least some Western officials and observers had hoped would lead to more regular communication between the rival powers.

“My biggest concern of China is miscommunication,” former Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said during Monday forum with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE). “We’re not talking enough to China to avoid the possibility of a miscommunication that could have disastrous consequences. So, I would have kept the meeting on and put at the top of the meeting. What the hell are you doing with these balloons?”

Blinken’s team emphasized the need for the conversation even while explaining its cancellation. “The conversation that Secretary Blinken was to have had yesterday and today would have been about establishing that floor on the relationship to see to it that competition doesn’t veer into conflict, but also to test the proposition of collaboration, cooperation in areas that matter to us, that are of profound interest to us, but also that are of profound interest to the rest of the world,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday.

“The discovery of this high-altitude surveillance balloon in the days that preceded the secretary’s visit, of course, undermined the point of that visit,” he added. “We would not have been able to conduct the important business that Secretary Blinken was looking forward to doing on the ground in Beijing in that context.”

Instead, Biden sustained days of criticism from Republicans who urged him to order the balloon’s immediate destruction rather than wait until it could be shot down over the Atlantic Ocean. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attempted to speak with a senior Chinese official following the shoot-down, but Chinese officials, who have insisted that the vessel was a mere weather balloon that went adrift, declined the call.

“We believe in the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and the PRC in order to responsibly manage the relationship,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Tuesday. “Lines between our militaries are particularly important in moments like this.”

The spurning of Austin exemplifies the poor state of communication between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, particularly since August when Beijing canceled military and defense exchanges in response to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) visit to Taiwan, an island democracy that the communist regime aspires to rule.

“When Biden and Xi met in November, there was a lot of hope that the defense dialogue, the dialogue between the Chinese and U.S. militaries, was going to restart,” Cunningham said. “So far, the regular mechanism of military-to-military communication hasn’t restarted. … I was hoping to at least see steps toward restarting that in Blinken’s visit to Beijing.”

The balloon’s appearance in American skies is just one incident in a wider surveillance campaign that has operated with impunity in the United States and other countries around the world, according to U.S. and allied officials. Japanese citizens were alarmed in 2020 by the sight of a white “balloon-like object above a cross,” as it was described at the time.

“Some people thought this was a UFO,” a Japanese official told the Washington Post. “In hindsight people are realizing that was a Chinese espionage balloon. But at that time it was purely novel — nobody had seen this. … So there’s a lot of heightened attention at this time.”

That precedent raises the possibility that Chinese officials thought they could deploy the balloon without jeopardizing the Blinken meeting.

“There’s no way of knowing from publicly available information — they may have thought they could get away with it,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Mazza said. “They may have thought that we didn’t react harshly to others and so they could continue to do this, no big deal. And yes, they may have been trying to send a message or to test both technical and political responses to this sort of event. Those are all plausible explanations.”

The one certain fact is that a Chinese government balloon traveled across the United States at a height that rendered it visible from the ground to the naked eye.


“I think the CCP knew exactly what they were doing,” said Sen. Bill Hagerty, a Tennessee Republican and former ambassador to Japan. “The timing of this, I think, is just extremely unfortunate in that it reflects a lack of respect for this administration or coordination.”

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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