Beijing struggles to explain after balloon is shot down

Dhe Chinese government struggled to explain itself on Monday when a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry had to answer questions from journalists at a regular press conference for the first time since the balloon affair began. When asked about the second suspected spy balloon sighted over Latin America, spokeswoman Mao Ning said it also flew into the airspace of Latin American countries “accidentally”. “It is for civilian purposes and is affected by the weather given its limited manoeuvrability.”

Friederike Böge

Political correspondent for China, North Korea and Mongolia.

When the journalists wanted to know how it could be that China could have lost control over two balloons, Mao had to pass. “I’m not an expert. I’m not comfortable answering that question,” she said, using a commonly used Chinese phrase. She accused the US government of “further exaggerating” the matter after the Chinese balloon was launched. That is unacceptable and irresponsible.

In a similar tone, the Chinese government officially protested to the American ambassador in Beijing on Monday morning about the shooting down of the suspected spy balloon by the American military. Deputy Secretary of State Xie Feng told the US government that the United States’ actions had “seriously damaged efforts by both sides to stabilize Sino-US relations,” the State Department said Monday. Xie urged the US government “not to take any further measures that harm China’s interests”.

Beijing stuck to its version, according to which it was a “civilian airship” that had flown into American airspace unintentionally due to “force majeure”. At the same time, Xie tightened the previous choice of words and described the shooting down of the object as “indiscriminate use of force”. The United States is convinced that the balloon operation was used to reconnoiter American military installations. Xie, touted as China’s new ambassador to Washington, called it slander. The Chinese government will “closely monitor the development of the situation”.

Military divers try to salvage the debris

After the destruction of the balloon, China is faced with the question of how the American government will deal with the recovered debris, which presumably allows conclusions to be drawn about China’s communications technology capabilities. According to the Pentagon, military divers are currently recovering the debris. It is assumed that the operation will last several days. Beijing is interested in ensuring that as little as possible becomes public about the evaluation of the technical devices on board the balloon, also to save face. So far, Beijing has not asked for the equipment to be returned.

This could also be due to the fact that the Chinese public’s perception of the affair initially developed largely in Beijing’s favor. A narrative had circulated on the Chinese internet that the downing of the balloon by an F-22 fighter jet was a sign of American weakness, because much ado was made about nothing and a simple balloon was enough to send the country into an uproar. It remains to be seen whether the ministry spokeswoman’s need for explanations will cause a change of heart.

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