China Accuses U.S. of Flying Balloons Over Xinjiang and Tibet

China accused the United States on Wednesday of flying high-altitude balloons over the western Chinese regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, pointing the finger at Washington amid growing scrutiny over Beijing’s global surveillance efforts.

China’s claim comes two days after it first accused the United States of illegally flying balloons in its airspace, saying American airships had flown over China more than 10 times since the beginning of 2022. The United States denied the claim.

In another apparent tit-for-tat move, China said it would “take countermeasures” against “relevant American entities” in response to the United States’ blacklisting of six Chinese aerospace companies associated with China’s spy balloon program.

Washington and Beijing have been trading barbs for more than two weeks, ever since a sprawling Chinese balloon was spotted over North America. The vessel, which Washington says was used for espionage and Beijing says was mainly used to gather weather data, was eventually shot down on Feb. 4 off the coast of South Carolina, leading to revelations about China’s global spy balloon program by American officials.

Wednesday’s accusation citing Xinjiang and Tibet addresses confusion about whether China had been referring to American airships spotted over disputed areas such as Taiwan and parts of the South China Sea that Beijing considers its own territory. The two regions are highly sensitive areas because of their restive ethnic populations, the large presence of military and security forces, and tense border conditions with geopolitical rivals such as India.

The Chinese Spy Balloon Showdown

The discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the United States has added to the rising tensions between the two superpowers.

  • Tensions Rise: In the aftermath of the U.S. downing of a Chinese spy balloon and three unidentified flying objects a week later, the two nations have traded fiery accusations over their spying programs.
  • China’s Reaction: Beijing has tried to play down the balloon incident, but that is getting harder to do as alarm and accusations mount. At home, China has sought to cast the controversy as a symptom of the United States’ decline. .
  • Unidentified Objects: As more unidentified objects were shot down in recent days, experts warned that there was an “endless” array of potential targets crowding America’s skies.
  • Dismay in Asia: The balloon saga has brought a wave of disappointment and fear to Asia, a region whose security and prosperity are especially vulnerable to flare-ups between the two superpowers.

China initially expressed regret for the appearance of its balloon over the United States, explaining it had flown off course. Its tone changed after the craft was downed by a missile from an American fighter jet, a response Beijing has repeatedly described as an “overreaction.”

China did not explain whether it discovered the American balloons while they were still in the air or after looking at older radar data. It’s also unclear if China previously notified the United States about their presence. A spokesman for the foreign ministry said on Wednesday that China responded in “a calm and professional manner” in contrast to the United States’ decision to down China’s balloon.

“Reflect on yourself, stop smearing and attacking China, and stop misleading the American people and the international community. China reserves the right to make further necessary reactions,” said Wang Wenbin, a ministry spokesman.

Analysts say China is trying to deflect criticism for its surveillance balloons, which have been spotted in other parts of the world, including Taiwan, Latin America and the Middle East.

“China is scrambling to spin the crisis,” said Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “The shoot-down has put them on the back foot. They didn’t expect the whole incident to get so much attention both domestically and internationally. They’re looking for some claim to make it seem like they’re not in the wrong.”

In line with that effort, China has spent days ramping up anti-American rhetoric and suggesting that President Biden had been pressured to shoot down the balloon to boost his approval ratings and fend off attacks from Republican critics.

The growing spat has upended what had been a slow and steady thaw in relations that started in November when Mr. Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met face to face at the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia.

Tensions are now ratcheting up following a weekend in which American warplanes shot down three unidentified flying objects over North America. Early indications suggest the objects were harmless and likely did not belong to China.

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