What was China thinking? The mystery of its balloon motive raises tensions with U.S.

If everything had gone according to plan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken might have landed in China this week and met with Chinese Leader Xi Jinping, taking a much-needed step to fix their relationship. But those plans blew up, just like China’s errant 'spy' balloon.

Plans to mend the U.S.-China relationship blew up, just like the balloon

Close up shot of a small boat with about 8 people on board, pulling a large white item out of the water.
U.S. sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that was downed over the weekend over U.S. territorial waters off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Sunday. (U.S. Fleet Forces/U.S. Navy/Reuters)

If everything had gone according to plan this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken might have landed in China, lunched with officials and maybe had a tête-à-tête with Chinese Leader Xi Jinping at Zhongnanhai, Beijing's version of the White House. 

And just maybe, China and the U.S. would have taken a much-needed step to fix their long-dysfunctional relationship, with finger-pointing over trade and Taiwan, and growing military tension in the South China Sea.

Of course, those plans blew up, just like China's errant balloon exploded last weekend, shot down by an American pilot after flying over Alaska, Canada's West Coast and clear across the U.S. It gained notoriety as it floated over sensitive nuclear missile silos in Montana.

With the balloon's destruction went Blinken's visit, postponed indefinitely. Conditions were not "conducive," he said, after China had committed such an "irresponsible act" of violating U.S. airspace with what Washington considers a spy blimp. 

China calls it a "civilian airship," "regretting" that the weather balloon had blown off course. It considers the Pentagon's decision to destroy it "a clear overreaction" worthy of a diplomatic protest

So much for promises to "elevate the relationship" made by Xi to U.S. President Joe Biden at their last summit in Bali last November — and to open lines of communication.

A man wearing a black suit and a burgundy tie stands next to a man wearing a blue suit and tie, with American and Chinese flags in the background.
U.S. President Joe Biden, right, stands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 14, 2022. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

"I want to be clear," said Biden at the time, "so there's no misunderstanding" between the two countries. That's when he offered to dispatch Blinken to begin the thaw.

"I absolutely believe there need not be a new Cold War," Biden said.

'Really counter-productive'

But in a week, things have gotten frostier. And Beijing's opaque decision-making is making the situation even more tense.

This has many wondering: What was China thinking? Why would it have allowed such a provocative move just as it was getting ready to welcome America's top diplomat? 

"It's almost as if someone on the Chinese side did this on purpose to make [President Xi] lose face," speculated Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian Ambassador to China, "to create a further problem for him."

Xi has had political troubles lately, as China struggles with a national COVID-19 outbreak following the country's abrupt about-face on how to deal with the pandemic, though it would have been a very unusual — and dangerous — move to challenge Xi's near-absolute power. 

WATCH | Biden orders the balloon shot down:

'I told them to shoot it down,' Biden says about suspected Chinese spy balloon

2 months ago
Duration 0:52
U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday said he told the Pentagon on Wednesday to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as soon as possible. On Saturday, the balloon was downed over the Atlantic Ocean.

"It's a puzzling own-goal," said Lincoln Hines, who teaches at the U.S. Air War College in Alabama and specializes in China. "It's really counterproductive to what China's trying to do on the world stage" in presenting itself as upholding international law while the U.S. does what it wants, he said.

He said he thinks the balloon could have been sent up by one department of the Chinese government without consulting another, the kind of bureaucratic blunder that happened in 2007 during a controversial Chinese anti-satellite test. In that incident, its foreign ministry was "blindsided."

It's also possible that someone in the Chinese government or military decided to take things into their own hands, inspired by China's official "fighting spirit" stance toward the U.S., said Tong Zhao, a former foreign policy adviser to the Beijing government who now does research at Princeton University and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He's normally based in Beijing.

"In this environment, everyone has the incentive to be critical of the U.S.," said Zhao. "It motivates China's diplomats to become 'wolf warriors,' and makes Chinese military officers behave more assertively on the front line," he said.

"It makes those kinds of unplanned encounters even more dangerous," said Zhao.

An object, suspected to be a spy balloon, is seen in the sky.
The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, S.C., Feb. 4, 2023. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

For Zhao, this fits into a trend he's studied of different perceptions of the other power — and its motivations — in Washington and Beijing. 

It's a perception gap that "greatly reduces their interest to have meaningful conversations with the other side when they believe that the other side has been constantly telling lies and breaking international principles and norms," he said, leading to communications being cut off at critical moments.

'Incredibly brazen'

During this latest incident, the Pentagon says it requested a phone call between U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe on Saturday, right after the balloon was shot down. China declined the chance at communications.

Instead, rhetoric has pushed both governments to take increasingly strident positions, Republicans in a polarized U.S. political atmosphere pressuring Biden to shoot down the balloon immediately, China's vice-foreign minister attacking Washington for "expanding tensions."

"What the United States has done severely impacted and undermined the efforts and progress made by the two sides to stabilize China-U.S. relations," vice foreign minister Xie Feng is quoted as saying in Chinese state media.

A man wearing a black suit and tie sits at a table, with others around him, in front of a small microphone. A painting and an American flag can be seen in the background.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting in Washington on Tuesday. Blinken called off a diplomatic trip to Beijing after the downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the U.S. (Brendan Smialowski/The Associated Press)

Experts in North America aren't sure there's much advantage to China using an airship for spying, though there is evidence it has interest in doing so.

"They have other ways that are frankly better of collecting intelligence, primarily from satellites in orbit," said Kari Bingen, who held the second-most important civilian intelligence job at the Pentagon during the Trump Administration.

She says it's unclear why the balloon would have been sent over, but that Chinese officials are often "playing by their own rules," especially when it comes to acquiring U.S. technology — calling this latest move "incredibly brazen."

Some think China knew its balloon would get spotted, and that was the real purpose of sending it over the U.S. — to create outrage and stoke political polarization, said Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former Chief of the Strategic Analysis Unit for Asia-Pacific at the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, CSIS.

Payback, perhaps, for embarrassment caused by U.S. help to Taiwan and high-profile visits to the self-governing island that China claims, he said. To "bring embarrassment to Mr. Biden, because this is what you brought to us when [your officials and politicians] went to Taiwan." 

WATCH | New tensions thanks to spy balloon:

'Spy balloon will create new tensions in U.S.-China relations,' says Canada's former Ambassador to Beijing

2 months ago
Duration 8:40
"It's like someone on the Chinese side almost did this on purpose to make President Xi Jinping lose face," says Canada's former Ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques.

It's tit-for-tat moves like these that worry analysts most when they see Beijing and Washington confronting each other without understanding intentions.

Zhao fears misperceptions of "dangerous" situations like Taiwan most. The U.S. believes China is developing the military means to invade the island, he said, while China is convinced the U.S. is "trying to provoke a deliberate conflict over Taiwan."

"It's genuinely possible," he said, "this perception gap could lead to military conflict."

With direct talks between top Chinese and American officials on hold, tensions only look like they'll keep rising.


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.

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