China’s balloon dispute draws attention to Xi’s leadership

The Chinese balloon that made its way through the United States launched a thousand questions about its true intention.

But it also draws the world’s attention to the prospect that the communications and control within the government of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his much-vaunted security apparatus may be less cohesive — or even less functional — than the image it portrays. he projects with so much confidence.

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

The United States claims the vessel was a “high altitude surveillance balloon”. China maintains that it was a civilian airship that veered off course while collecting weather data. Whether the inflatable contraption is there by mistake or a brazen military stunt, its emergence raises questions about how China navigates its growing position as a global power.

“What has been particularly damaging to China, both internationally and domestically, are the questions it raises about jurisdiction and how they reinforce doubts about Xi Jinping’s leadership,” said Susan Shirk, a former deputy. Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration and author of a recent book, “Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise.”

It’s unclear how preventable the incident was, but it comes at a time when Mr Xi is believed to be at the peak of his powers after breaking the norm last year by winning a third term and making national security the cornerstone of his rule. .

With Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken canceling his trip to Beijing, Xi missed an opportunity to fend off growing pressure Washington is exerting on China through security ties with partners across Asia and restrictions on semiconductor technology. This would have allowed Mr. Xi to devote more attention to pressing domestic issues such as reviving China’s weakened economy.

The balloon incident follows other apparent miscalculations, including the haphazard unwinding of its sometimes stifling ‘zero Covid’ measures following widespread protests, and its agreement to a ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia just weeks before the invasion of Ukraine.

“It’s really a paradox if you think about it, because this is the start of his third term,” Ms Shirk added. “He should be at the climax. And yet we see all these negative comments.

Questions about Mr. Xi’s judgment and that of his military and intelligence services are now clouding assessments of how China would handle another crisis in a much more dangerous setting like the heavily militarized Taiwan Strait – a worrying scenario given the growing likelihood 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 prioritize economic development,” Ms. Shirk said. “That just hasn’t been the case under Xi Jinping in recent years. So that means you can’t predict the future. That’s why we all think 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 down by a US fighter jet on Saturday. After initially expressing regret for the ball’s emergence, China toughened their stance on Monday.

Xie Feng, vice foreign minister, filed a protest with the US Embassy in Beijing, scolding the US for destroying the ship and accusing Washington of reversing 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, and urges the United States not to take any further actions that harm China’s interests, and not to aggravate or expand the tension,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. Foreign Affairs in a press release. Mr. Xie said that China reserves the right to respond if necessary.

Regardless of Beijing’s protests, US Navy divers are scouring the waters off South Carolina to retrieve the balloon parts.

For China, the untimely 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 government agencies, analysts say.

“It shows that the national security coordination process to prevent incidents like this is not yet functional as it should be,” said Drew Thompson, visiting senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in the National University of Singapore, and a former US defense official.

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

Mr. Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on the Chinese military, said he believed Chinese leadership would not have allowed the balloon to fly to the United States if he had known of its trip, given Mr. Blinken’s visit.

“I can only speculate on the intentions of the unit that launched the mission: perhaps they were unaware or indifferent to any political fallout should it be discovered, or perhaps they were carrying out long-standing plans without any attention to the diplomatic calendar,” Mr. Fravel said in an email.

Mr Thompson said it was possible the Chinese military orchestrated the flap, as it would benefit from heightened and sustained tension with the United States. The surveillance balloons are believed 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 hovering over the self-governing island were operated by rocket force, although it said the balloons were likely used for weather observation.

The Chinese military has already caught other parts of the government off guard. In 2011, the People’s Liberation Army carried out its first test of its new J-20 stealth fighter just hours before a meeting in Beijing between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Hu Jintao, China’s leader at the time. The test flight was interpreted as an attempt to undermine the visit, which was intended to improve defense links. Mr. Hu, who was a significantly less powerful leader than Mr. Xi, appeared to ignore the test when pushed by Mr. Gates.

In another incident in 2007, the Chinese Foreign Ministry for days refused to comment on a successful anti-satellite missile test carried out by the rocket force, then known as the Second Artillery Corps. The silence at the time underscored the secrecy of the Chinese military, which only communicated tests of this nature directly to Mr. Hu.

In any case, the inability to scrutinize China’s thinking – which has been exacerbated by growing mistrust between Washington and Beijing – has only added to the sense of volatility in the relationship.

“What the ball incident totally reinforces is the complete lack of transparency in Chinese decision-making,” Mr Thompson said. “It’s a feature, not a bug of their system. And it’s going to happen again. If events are changing quickly, the government doesn’t have nimble decision-making structures. They can’t communicate effectively during a rapidly evolving crisis, which does not bode well for current efforts with China.


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