Rubio says China flew balloon over US to send 'a message': They think America is 'in decline'

The senator said, "first and foremost," he wants to know what the balloon saw.

February 5, 2023, 12:18 PM

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that despite China's claims otherwise, they sent a balloon into the U.S. to send a message about the country's sway across the globe.

"The key part here is they knew exactly what they were doing and there was a message behind it," Rubio told ABC "This Week" co-anchor Jonathan Karl.

"They understood that it [the balloon] was going to be spotted, they knew the U.S. government would have to reveal it, that people were gonna see it over the sky. And the message they were trying to send is what they believe internally, and that is that the United States is a once-great superpower that's hollowed out, it's in decline," Rubio said.

The balloon's presence over Montana caused the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a ground stop for the Billings airport on Wednesday. But U.S. officials only announced the vessel was over the country late Thursday, after it had already flown down from Alaska. The military chose to wait to strike the balloon until the risk to civilians was minimized, defense officials have said.

China saw value in that delay, Rubio said on "This Week."

"The message they're trying to send the world is, 'Look, these guys can't even do anything about a balloon flying over U.S. airspace. How can you possibly count on them if something were to happen in the Indo-Pacific region? ... How are they going to come to the aid of Taiwan or stand with the Philippines or Japan or India when the Chinese move on their territory?'" he said.

Rubio's comments come after bipartisan outrage over what the Biden administration described as a Chinese surveillance balloon that was first detected on Jan. 28 crossing Alaska, Canada and then the continental U.S., including flying over sensitive military sites that house intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The balloon was ultimately shot out of the sky on Saturday over the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina.

As vice chairman of the Senate's intelligence panel, Rubio will be one of eight lawmakers who will be briefed sometime this week behind closed doors on the circumstances around the balloon.

Rubio said on "This Week" that "first and foremost," he wanted to know what information the balloon was able to collect. He pointed to China's repeated use of such craft.

"Obviously, look, countries spy on countries. ... What was the value of this platform? Because it's one we've seen them use now for a handful of years here. But what's the value of it?" he said, adding, "What are we going to do about it in the future?"

PHOTO: In this Nov. 8, 2022, file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio speaks to his supporters during an election-night party in Miami.
In this Nov. 8, 2022, file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio speaks to his supporters during an election-night party in Miami.
Saul Martinez/Getty Images, FILE

Rubio dismissed China's public statements that the balloon was a civilian weather vessel that had accidentally flown to the U.S. He also said he wanted specific answers as to why the military chose to act when it did.

"When was it spotted? Why was it not brought down sooner over other areas? I'm open-minded to listening to the arguments they make about why it wasn't dealt with sooner," Rubio said.

The administration has said President Joe Biden on Wednesday ordered the balloon to be taken down once it was feasible, with the threat of harm to civilians ultimately delaying military action.

Whether the Pentagon would now glean useful intelligence from the balloon "depends [on] what they're able to retrieve," Rubio said. "When you shoot something out of the sky and it goes into the ocean, you don't always get it back in a neat package," he added.

Mike Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, concurred with Rubio in a separate interview on "This Week."

"I think I know enough about the system that you actually can navigate this system," Mullen said. "It has propellers on it, if you will. So, this was not an accident. This was deliberate. It was intelligence."

Both Rubio and Mullen said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the right move in delaying a planned trip to China, in light of this incident, but the senator also criticized Biden for not addressing Americans directly on what was unfolding.

"I don't know why they waited so long to tell people about this," he said.

Mullen approximated that China's balloon program is 10 years old and echoed some of the administration's rationale.

"It's very clear to me that the intelligence value of this, from the standpoint of what it was getting, was not worth the risk of killing an Americans on the ground," Mullen said. "And it's a substantial package in terms of its size, and even in the least dense areas of the country, there was that possibility, and I know that's why we waited to this point to take it down."

Mullen said this was the first time that he knew of a Chinese vessel "[coming] over the country like this," and he suggested it was possible that elements in the Chinese military had acted on their own to disrupt Blinken's diplomatic trip.

"There's no way that he could have a meaningful visit, and we have a host of issues that we need to address. ... Strategically, this really damages a relationship between us and China, which was deteriorating," Mullen said. "And I think that's really the big part of this."

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