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VOA Interview: Chinese Balloon Operation Shows Disconnect Between Foreign Ministry and Military, Former CIA Analyst Says

VOA Interview: Chinese Balloon Operation Shows Disconnect Between Foreign Ministry and Military, Former CIA Analyst Says
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VOA Interview: Chinese Balloon Operation Shows Disconnect Between Foreign Ministry and Military, Former CIA Analyst Says

Dennis Wilder, a former China analyst with the CIA, discussed the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was spotted drifting across the United States this week with VOA on Saturday.

Wilder, now a professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, spoke with VOA’s State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching shortly after the U.S. military shot down the balloon over the Atlantic Ocean.

Asked if the U.S. had missed the opportunity to collect intelligence of what’s inside the balloon, Wilder said, “No, not at all. The balloon was shot down in U.S. territorial waters off the coast of the Carolinas. The Navy and Coast Guard are at this time working on recovery of the package that was on board.”

China said it was a weather research vessel blown off course, a claim rejected by U.S. officials who said the craft earlier this week had been over areas of Montana where nuclear missiles are siloed.

The State Department has declined to comment on if there’s further diplomatic communication following the downing of China's balloon.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: The PRC surveillance balloon has been shot down. What is the U.S. calculation? Did the U.S. miss the opportunity to collect intelligence on what’s inside the balloon?

DENNIS WILDER, FORMER CHINA ANALYST WITH THE CIA: No, not at all. The balloon was shot down in U.S. territorial waters off the coast of the Carolinas. The Navy and Coast Guard are at this time working on recovery of the package that was on board. Now, whether that package of sensors is intact, or was broken up upon entry into the sea, we won't know. But they have divers out there. If it fell into the water and went deep in the water, they may be able to recover it from the ocean floor. But they will certainly make an effort to recover whatever the sensor package was on board.

VOA: Do you see an internal divergence within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, a disconnection between the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the balloon operation?

WILDER: Well, first of all, what I know to be fact is that there was definitely a disconnect between the foreign ministry and the military. My understanding is when first approached, the foreign ministry had no idea of this balloon system being over the United States. So, they were taken completely by surprise. My analysis is that this, because it was a spy operation, and because it was probably handled by the People's Liberation Army, could well have been stovepipe. It could well be that it wasn't well coordinated within the Chinese system.

Often when you have covert operations, and even here in the United States it's the same way. Often when there's a covert action or a covert operation that you're trying to keep secret, you don't inform everybody within the political system. So, there's a real question of how high up the chain of command in Beijing, this was approved. Who knew about it? Were they given a chance to comment on it? Or was this really very much an operation of the People's Liberation Army?

VOA: You have been watching PLA for more than three decades, is it typical for PLA to act alone without looping in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Within the PRC political system, does Chinese military have more influence on policy direction, more so than Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

WILDER: When it comes to an area like this, that's in the PLA's area of both expertise and authority. Then, yes, it has much more influence within the system than the foreign ministry.

I can tell you that there were several different times when we found that the Chinese foreign ministry and others were not informed. Let me give you a couple of examples. When Robert Gates as secretary of defense went to Beijing in January of 2011, immediately before his meeting with President Hu Jintao, the Chinese military announced that it had tested its new stealth fighter aircraft and released pictures of that aircraft for the first time. Secretary Gates felt that the PLA was trying to embarrass him. And so he decided to embarrass the PLA, because he thought that this might well not be a coordinated operation. So when he met with President Hu Jintao, he immediately said: “Your military has just tested a new stealth fighter on the eve of my visit. I will be asked whether this was done to embarrass me. President Hu, was this done to embarrass me?” President Hu laughed nervously and then turned to his PLA advisers, and asked, “Is this true?” Bob Gates, very well knew from seeing the body language, that President Hu Jintao had no idea that the military was going to do this kind of thing.

Another example is when the Chinese tested an anti-satellite missile against one of their own satellites. It was very apparent to the U.S. side, and Secretary Robert Gates was the defense secretary at that point, as well, it was very clear that the foreign ministry had no idea that this test was going to occur and was very embarrassed about it.

So I could give you more examples, but there is a clear history of the PLA not running these things through the foreign ministry and running it through very, very few people in Beijing.

VOA: In your assessment, how badly does the PRC want a high-profile visit from the United States secretary of state? And why?

WILDER: (Chinese) President Xi Jinping himself has indicated how important this visit was to him. President Xi Jinping is on what I would call a charm offensive right now that started after zero-COVID was lifted, where he wants to tell the world that China is open for business again. He wants very much to see American investors come back. He wants to see American companies not thinking of moving their supply chains and diversifying them away from China to places like India, Vietnam, other Southeast Asian nations.

And so, I think that the rapid speed of an apology from the Chinese yesterday is an indicator that he hoped to keep the visit of Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken on track. It is very unusual, in fact, I can't give you an example of a time when the Chinese have apologized to the United States for anything.

And so this was unprecedented, and it showed how much China actually wanted that visit to occur. Of course, Secretary Blinken canceled the visit and now you see a bit of a harder edge out of Beijing rhetorically. But there was an attempt on the Chinese side to keep this visit in place.

VOA: What needs to be done before Secretary of State Blinken is to reschedule his trip to China?

WILDER: Well, I think we are in a new period of heightened tensions between the United States and China. Because if the United States is able to recover from the ocean information that shows that this indeed was a spy mission and not a meteorological mission and shows that evidence to the Chinese, we are going to embarrass the Chinese. We may well very much embarrass the People's Liberation Army. And so I think that that will be difficult to manage, particularly if the United States comes out very publicly with this information. So there's going to be a tense period here.

One of my concerns is that as these tensions rise in the next week or two, there could be difficulties in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea. Because Chinese military may feel they need to be more aggressive than they have been against U.S. reconnaissance flights in the area.

And you will recall that in December the United States accused a Chinese pilot of flying unsafely near an American aircraft. Now I was in the government and very involved in April of 2001. Actually, it was on April 1, 2001, when a Chinese pilot, flying very unsafely, collided with an American reconnaissance aircraft, forcing the aircraft, the American aircraft to land at Lingshui Airfield on Hainan Island, a military airfield. Fortunately, none of the crew are killed. Unfortunately, the pilot of the Chinese jet was killed.

It took us 11 days of negotiating with the Chinese to get that crew back. And in part, the problem was, that the Chinese government claimed that we had been at fault, that our pilot had done unsafe things, which was absolutely untrue. And the video camera footage that we had from the plane proved this decisively. Nonetheless, the Chinese insisted on an apology from the United States at that time, and we gave them a letter of regret from our ambassador in Beijing and that seemed sufficient to get the pilot and the crew home.