Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made a “deep mistake” with Beijing’s spy balloon saga, a former head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service says.
Sir Alex Younger, the former head of Britain’s spy agency, told the BBC that China’s assumption of how the US would react to surveillance balloons being sent across its territory “wasn’t properly thought through”.
He added that should US parts be found in the balloons, four of which have now been shot down, it would further encourage Washington DC to restrict China’s access to advanced technology.
And he said the growing diplomatic and military crisis potentially revealed China’s “manifest hypocrisy,” just as Beijing attempts to coax nations out of the US’ orbit and into its own.
China has admitted the first and largest balloon, shot down on February 4 off the South Carolina coast after it sailed over sensitive military sites, was its equipment. Beijing apologised for overflying the US but has insisted it was a weather balloon.
The three remaining three balloons, shot down over the US and Canada, are far smaller and less is known about them.
Talking to BBC Radio 4’s morning news program Today on Tuesday, Mr Younger – who headed the agency, which is more commonly know as MI6, from 2014 to 2020 – said the relationship between the US and China was “plummeting to zero”.
“This whole balloon conversation just demonstrates to you how there is no trust in that relationship.”
He said that the West was under the “full press” of Chinese espionage by many means so the balloon incidents weren’t necessarily a surprise. But the sheer brazenness of it was. And that could not only affect Beijing – Washington relations, but also attempts by China to encourage other nations to trust it rather than the US.
“It’s a deep mistake by China to underestimate the effect that this was going to have,” Mr Younger said.
“I think it wasn’t properly thought through. And it’s really difficult for Xi because he’s proposing a new security architecture for the world which is about the indivisible rights and interconnected security of developing countries and China’s role in safeguarding that in contrast to a sort of ‘US recklessness’.
“This just flies absolutely flies in the face of that.
“It’s a really gross and visible transgression of the sovereignty of many nations. I think the US will rightly take the opportunity to point out the manifest hypocrisy that this program involves, and will be politically motivated to make a big fuss and I think that’s sensible,” Mr Younger said.
Large parts of the original larger balloon have been recovered from the Atlantic Ocean. The former intelligence chief said Washington would be scouring the wreckage for US parts.
In recent years, the US has been trying to choke off Chinese access to some advanced technological components, such as high-end semiconductors. In response, Xi has been attempting to bolster the country’s technology capability through domestic production.
“If it turns out these US technology is being used within these sensors to spy on the US that will rapidly deepen the tech divergence conversation,” said Mr Younger.
That could see Washington further try and restrict Chinese access to material.
The US has remained coy on what the smaller three floating objects were and who may have sent them.
On Monday, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said they were shot down more because of the risk to aircraft.
“I want to reassure Americans that these objects do not present a military threat to anyone on the ground.
“They do, however, present a risk to civil aviation and potentially an intelligence collection threat.”
Beijing: US sent balloons to China
On Tuesday, China urged the United States to conduct a “thorough investigation” into what Beijing claims was a string of incursions into its airspace by US balloons.
China said the US had sent over 10 balloons since last year.
“The US has launched several high-altitude balloons from the US that made continuous round-the-world flights, illegally flying over the airspace of China and other countries on at least 10 occasions,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular briefing.
“The US side should conduct a thorough investigation and give an explanation to China,” he added.
Wang did not provide evidence of the alleged incursions, which he said started in May 2022.
He previously told journalists the incursions began in January that year. Washington has denied Beijing’s claims that it sent observation devices into Chinese airspace.
– with AFP.