Balloon Crisis Highlighted a Split in China’s Leadership, Pentagon Official Says
A top Pentagon official said on Friday that China’s supreme leader was likely unaware of the Chinese spy balloon that traversed the United States until the controversy erupted, underscoring a split between the country’s top civilian and military leadership.
The official, Colin H. Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, said that President Xi Jinping of China probably knew about his country’s broader high-altitude surveillance balloon program, but not the specific spy balloon until it captured widespread attention by floating over the United States.
“I suspect he asked his military about it, and his military started to backpedal and to make excuses,” Mr. Kahl said at a meeting with the New York Times editorial board in New York.
“There is a major civil-military divide inside the P.R.C. system,” he said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “Xi Jinping does not trust his military. He doesn’t.”
Mr. Kahl’s assertion that he believes Mr. Xi is suspicious of his military commanders is perhaps the strongest such public comment by a senior Biden administration official. Mr. Xi has molded his identity and image around the idea that he is an heir of the Communist Party’s original revolutionary zeal and its strong affinity with the Chinese military.
Like his predecessors, Mr. Xi is chairman of the Central Military Commission, but many analysts have said they believe he is closer to military leaders than any party chief since Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong.
President Biden on Thursday sought to reassure Americans that three other aerial objects shot down were not tied to Beijing and said that he planned to speak with Mr. Xi to keep lines of communication open. Secretary of State Antony Blinken may speak to Wang Yi, the Chinese Communist Party’s top foreign policy official, at a security conference in Munich on Saturday.
Mr. Kahl said on Friday that both sides were looking to put the episode behind them.
“I think they are thoroughly embarrassed by this entire situation,” Mr. Kahl said. “They want to put things back on track.” He added that the United States also had “an interest in getting things into a place where we can have mature conversations.”
In a discussion at Columbia University on Friday, Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said that communicating with China during times of crisis was far more difficult than it was to talk to Soviet leaders in the Cold War.
“One challenge with China is that they tend to clamp down in a crisis and not talk,” she said.
Chinese officials, she said, tend to think of issues over far longer terms than American leaders, further complicating communications between the two political centers.
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Asked if the outcry over the surveillance balloon was exaggerated, Ms. Haines said, “It’s so crazy, it’s like an episode of ‘Veep’ on some level.” But she added it was reasonable to have a “forceful reaction” to the surveillance balloon.
The Biden administration’s efforts to put the badly strained relations with Beijing back on sounder footing came as Navy divers on Thursday completed an operation to recover pieces of the spy balloon, which a U.S. fighter jet had shot down off the coast of South Carolina this month, according to U.S. Northern Command. And on Friday, a U.S. official said the government has called off the search for two unidentified flying objects, in remote areas of Alaska and around Lake Huron, days after the military shot them out of the sky.
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The recovered balloon debris was sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s laboratory in Quantico, Va., for further analysis, including “counterintelligence exploitation,” raising the possibility of greater visibility into what the balloon had been able to capture as it traversed parts of the United States.
In remarks on Thursday, Mr. Biden called the spy balloon a “violation of our sovereignty” and said the analysis of the salvaged material could provide insights into China’s spying capabilities. But he insisted he would speak to Mr. Xi in an apparent effort to calm tensions over the incident.
“We’re not looking for a new Cold War,” he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Northern Command declined to comment on what had been recovered or how long a full analysis could take.
A U.S. F-22 hit the balloon with a Sidewinder missile at an altitude between 60,000 and 65,000 feet, according to the Pentagon, and dive teams began bringing debris back days later.
But the completion of the recovery nonetheless raised questions about what intelligence could be gleaned from the remains, as occurred in 1960 when the Soviet Union pored over the wreckage of a U-2 plane or in 2001 when the Chinese military looked over a damaged Navy spy plane involved in a collision with a Chinese jet.
“They didn’t learn very much from us,” Mr. Kahl said on Friday. “We learned a hell of a lot from them.”
Mr. Kahl declined to provide any details pending the outcome of the analysis but said the balloon’s payload had the ability to do full-motion and high-resolution video, as well as antennae that could intercept electronic transmissions.
China’s high-altitude surveillance balloons were not designed to spy on the continental United States, Mr. Kahl said, suggesting this instance was an opportunistic step taken by senior Chinese military officials after the balloon strayed into Montana from Canada.
“They built these things predominantly to support them in a potential war in the western Pacific” and to spy on U.S. bases in Guam and Hawaii, he said.
The decision to wait to down the balloon until it had reached the ocean was described by the White House and senior military advisers as a precaution, to avoid bringing it down in an area that might pose a risk to civilians. The operation required the Federal Aviation Administration to briefly block air traffic over the coast, and parts of the region were closed off as the recovery effort was carried out.
According to the announcement by Northern Command, as of Thursday, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels had departed the area and air and maritime safety perimeters had been lifted.
Julian E. Barnes and Edward Wong contributed reporting.