Contrary to concerns in various capitals about a possible escalation in Sino-American hostility after an alleged Chinese spy balloon was shot down by the United States, China has decided to lower the temperature by insisting its straying into US airspace was an accident.
The muted Chinese response over has surprised many observers and led to speculation in diplomatic circles about the reasons behind Beijing’s measured reaction to the US action on Sunday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning pointed out that China had urged the US to handle the balloon accident in a calm, professional, and restrained manner. But the US insistence on using armed force in disregard to China’s position and demands was obviously an overreaction.
Beijing’s reaction could be seen as an attempt on its part to ensure the contact between the two sides that began after the first in-person meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Bali G20 summit in November does not get derailed.
Xi has spent the past months easing tension with a number of Western countries to ensure they do not join the US’s alliance to contain China.
He is also trying to avoid antagonizing the US at a time when China has come out of its long Covid isolation and is now prepared to engage with the outside world to restart its economy, which took a beating during the pandemic.
The Chinese balloon, suspected to be for surveillance, was sighted flying over South Carolina. It was destroyed with a missile fired from an F-22 plane by the US armed forces on February 5.
The Biden administration lauded the Pentagon for shooting down the alleged Chinese spy balloon off the US Atlantic coast as Beijing expressed "strong dissatisfaction" at the move and said it may make "necessary responses."
Blinken’s visit called off
The sighting of the balloon in the US airspace had forced Washington to call off a two-day visit to Beijing by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that was scheduled to begin from Monday.
It also triggered commentaries predicting a further nosedive of bilateral relations between China and the US that have already been under severe strain for the past few years.
But instead of an expected ballistic reaction, China came out with a sober response to the shooting down of its balloon by America, surprising observers in the US and elsewhere who were tracking the developments closely and with much interest.
There have also been reports about a second Chinese balloon flying over Latin America.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao said it has been verified that the unmanned airship came from China. But it was of a civilian nature and used for flight tests.
Affected by the weather and with limited self-control capabilities, it seriously deviated from its planned route and strayed into the skies over Latin America and the Caribbean.
Mao said China was a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international law to notify relevant parties and handle the accident properly.
She emphasised that China will not pose any threat to any country, and all parties understand this.
The Chinese government’s lodging of an official complaint was also done without much fanfare.
Chinese media reports said China's Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng lodged “a solemn representation” on Sunday to the US Embassy in China over the US attack on the unmanned civilian airship.
The reports said China briefed the US about the situation many times, saying the airship was used for scientific research purposes such as meteorology.
Since it was affected by the Westerlies and had limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course.
Mao said: "We have made it clear that this was entirely an accident caused by force majeure but the US deliberately exaggerated it.”
She added that armed attacks were unacceptable and irresponsible.
The tough US action on the Chinese balloon could be for two reasons. One, irrespective of its own assessment that it was the weather conditions that pushed the balloon into the US airspace, Washington wanted to tell Beijing that it will tolerate any such “accidents” lightly in future.
The second reason could be the prevailing domestic mood, especially in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, where the Biden family’s business dealings with China have turned into an issue.
By shooting down the balloon and calling off Blinken’s visit to Beijing, Biden wanted to convey to the American people that he will be tough in dealing with any aggressive moves by China.
Even so, the US is also keen not to allow its relations with China to drift as it had been trying to install guardrails to ensure the bilateral tension did not turn into a conflict.
Washington had informed Wang Yi, the Chinese President’s main advisor on foreign policy, about the postponement of Blinken’s visit, indicating that both sides wanted to keep their communication going.
China also maintained that it had been communicating with the US during the entire balloon episode.
Asked whether the balloon accident will further affect relations, the Chinese spokesperson said this tested the sincerity of the US in stabilizing and improving relations with China.
Mao said the US should meet China halfway to properly manage differences and avoid misunderstandings and misjudgments that undermine mutual trust.
President Xi Jinping is likely to visit the US later this year. If relations between the two sides remain stable in the coming months, perhaps such a visit will materialize and ways may be found to remove much of the strain from their bilateral relations.