China, Still Trying to Play Down Balloon, Finds It’s Getting Harder to Do

BEIJING — Since the spy balloon saga started, China has tried to play down the incident and prevent it from further inflaming relations with the United States. But as American alarm and accusations have mounted, that strategy is increasingly coming under strain — forcing China into an awkward, at times self-contradictory position.

Beijing has continued to maintain that the United States is overreacting to what China called a civilian vessel gathering mainly meteorological data, though the US says it has found evidence of surveillance equipment. But as Washington has begun publicly alerting and mobilizing its allies, and more directly attacking Beijing, China has also at times adopted a more confrontational tone, further raising the specter of escalation.

A foreign ministry spokeswoman on Friday accused the United States of using “pure political manipulation” against China. Earlier in the week, China rebuffed an American request for a phone call between the two countries’ defense ministers. A Chinese diplomat said that even if U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken had visited Beijing this week — Mr. Blinken scrapped the visit because of the balloon — it would not have done any good for bilateral relations.

“I think we’re past the stage” of the incident not becoming a big deal, Drew Thompson, a former U.S. Defense Department official on China, said of the Chinese attempts to minimize fallout. Mr. Thompson is now a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

China’s inconsistent messaging was feeding tensions even if that was not the direct goal, Mr. Thompson continued. He pointed to Beijing’s vague attribution of the balloon to an unspecified civilian company, and its claim that its wayward trajectory was an isolated mistake — a claim seemingly undermined by the revelation of a second Chinese balloon over Latin America.

Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, leading a news conference in Beijing last week.Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

“Unnamed companies, disingenuous statements, essentially a lack of credible messaging from Beijing drive a degree of discomfort in Washington that is not going to contribute to a stable situation,” Mr. Thompson said.

Biden’s State of the Union Address

  • Challenging the G.O.P.: In the first State of the Union address of a new era of divided government, President Biden delivered a plea to Republicans for unity but vowed not to back off his economic agenda.
  • Blue-Collar Push: In his economically focused speech, Mr Biden signaled the opening of a campaign to persuade white working-class voters to return to the Democratic fold.
  • G.O.P. Heckling: The eruptions of Republican vitriol during Mr. Biden’s speech underscored a new and coarser normal for the G.O.P.-led House.
  • Romney-Santos Confrontation: The run-in between the Utah senator, an institutionalist who prizes decorum, and the embattled New York congressman encapsulated the tension inside the Republican Party.

When news of the balloon’s foray over the United States first emerged last week, it seemed possible that attention to it would quickly pass. The Biden administration said the vessel posed no threat to Americans. China, for its part, was unusually contrite, issuing a rare acknowledgment of fault and expressing regret.

China in recent months has striven for a more conciliatory tone in its diplomacy, compared to the abrasive “Wolf Warrior” style often assumed under China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Battered by three years of Covid restrictions and an unsteady economy, Beijing seems intent on focusing on domestic issues and minimizing its conflicts on the world stage.

But it has become clear this week that the incident is not going to fade so easily.

On Thursday, the State Department laid out, in the most detail to date, its view that the balloon was part of a global surveillance fleet directed by China’s military. American officials have also said that they have shared information on the espionage program with dozens of countries, and are weighing measures against Chinese companies or other bodies that may have been involved.

America’s domestic political calendar may also have contributed to the continually simmering tensions. Though he did not directly mention the balloon in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Biden promised to ward off Chinese threats to U.S. sovereignty, and declared that few world leaders would envy Mr. Xi. The president repeated those criticisms in a subsequent interview with PBS NewsHour, where he said that the Chinese leader faced “enormous problems,” including a weakened economy.

China, probably unsurprisingly, has hit back, with state media bashing Mr. Biden’s speech. The Global Times, a nationalist Communist Party-run tabloid, said the address, including its singling out of China, “did not seem like a State of the Union by the president of a major country that considers itself a world leader.”

At a news conference on Thursday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, called Mr. Biden’s comments about Mr. Xi “highly irresponsible” and a “violation of basic diplomatic protocol.”

President Biden delivering his State of the Union address on Tuesday.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Ms. Mao has also increasingly moved away from the initial regret the foreign ministry expressed about the balloon incident in general, repeatedly accusing the United States of exaggeration and hypocrisy.

“I am not aware of any ‘fleet of balloons,’” she said in response to a reporter’s question about the United States’ allegation of a wide-ranging balloon spying program. “That narrative is probably part of the information and public opinion warfare the U.S. has waged on China. As to who is the world’s number-one country of spying, eavesdropping and surveillance, that is plainly visible to the international community.” 

China’s defense ministry took a similarly hard line when it issued a statement on Thursday explaining its rejection of a proposed phone call from its American counterpart. It called the United States’ downing of the balloon an “irresponsible, serious mistake” that did not foster conditions for dialogue.

On Monday, China’s ambassador to France had made perhaps the most aggressive public comments yet, in an interview with a French television program. The ambassador, Lu Shaye, said that it would have been inappropriate for Mr. Blinken to visit China, anyway, given actions leading up to the visit that Mr. Lu described as anti-China. He cited the planned U.S. military expansion in the Philippines and arms sales to Taiwan.

Many Chinese political commentators have maintained that the United States is the driver of tensions, and that China is eager for a détente. But even in saying so, some have adopted a hawkish tone.

A billboard in Beijing showcasing China’s military.Credit…Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

“It will be difficult for China-U.S. relations to return to a benign and healthy development track, and the United States should bear the main responsibility for this,” Shen Yi, a prominent professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, said in a column. He added that the balloon incident had “revealed a bit of America’s true face.”

Beijing has offered some olive branches. On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said China would welcome a visit from U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in response to Ms. Yellen’s statement earlier this week that she still hoped to go.

The Global Times, despite attacking Mr. Biden’s State of the Union address, also published an opinion piece emphasizing the importance of Chinese and American economic interdependence.

Richard McGregor, a senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute, an Australia-based foreign policy think tank, said that any explicit moves toward escalation would likely come from the United States, given that it had more reasons to do so. He cited the bipartisan political pressure and anxiety about China’s rise. “It makes the U.S. actions a little more unpredictable than China’s,” he said.

China, he added, did not yet seem to be abandoning its hopes for a softer diplomatic tack, despite the unexpected challenges: “They’ve committed to a new direction for the moment.”

But as the drumbeat of information about the balloon from the United States continues, China could face added pressure to respond more harshly.

The onus was likely on China to forestall more tensions, Douglas H. Paal, a former American diplomat and scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said at a webinar on Friday.

“You have to light a backfire against this coming series of revelations early on,” he said at the event hosted by the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing think tank. “It would be smart for both sides, especially for the Chinese side, to start being more responsive before events start to accumulate again.”

Joy Dong contributed research.

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