After an American fighter jet shot down the Chinese balloon that had floated across the United States, the reaction from Beijing — defensive, angered, yet hedging its options — illustrated the challenges facing China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as he tries to stabilize relations while giving little, if any, ground.
Hours after the balloon was struck by a Sidewinder missile and crumpled into the waters off South Carolina, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared its “strong discontent and protest” and doubled down on its position that the balloon was a civilian research airship blown way off course by fierce winds. Washington, not Beijing, had broken the rules, the ministry said.
Biden administration officials have rejected China’s explanation and insisted that the balloon was on a spying mission.
“The Chinese side clearly requested that the U.S. appropriately deal with this in a calm, professional and restrained manner,” said the statement from the Chinese ministry on Sunday. “For the United States to insist on using armed force is clearly an excessive reaction.”
Chinese officials had been preparing to host the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, for talks this week in Beijing aimed at containing tensions over a glut of issues: technology barriers and bans, Western opposition to hard-line Chinese policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and American support for Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing has demanded must accept unification. Mr. Blinken pulled out of his trip to China, citing anger over the balloon.
Beijing’s reaction to the bipartisan furor in the United States over the high-altitude balloon suggested that Chinese leaders were baffled that those planned talks in Beijing had been upstaged by what they described as an innocent mistake. But China also suggested that it could somehow retaliate against the American military’s action: The Foreign Ministry noted that it “retains the right to respond further.”
China’s Ministry of National Defense, which speaks for the military, also called the shooting down of the balloon an “excessive reaction.”
“We solemnly protest the U.S. action, and retain the right to use the necessary means to deal with similar circumstances,” the Defense Ministry said in its two-sentence statement.
Calibrating China’s reaction will be tricky for Mr. Xi.
“China is in a very tight geopolitical spot,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a professor of international politics at Georgetown University who served as President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Asia-Pacific affairs. “They were caught red handed with no place to go. And during a moment when they want to improve relations with many big powers, principally the U.S.”
China’s internet — often an echo chamber for nationalist emotions — resounded with calls for Beijing to stand up to the United States over shooting down of the balloon. And even if Mr. Xi and other Chinese Communist Party leaders can brush off public pressure, their own prickly pride may demand some symbolic countermeasure to save face.
But Mr. Xi has his hands full with domestic strains and may want to avoid another round of tit-for-tat antagonism with the Biden administration. China’s economy is anemic after the abrupt abandonment of Mr. Xi’s strict “zero Covid” policies, and the government is also trying to defuse a longer-term real-estate crisis. The United States’ tightening restrictions on sales of advanced technology to China, especially cutting-edge semiconductors, could hurt Chinese companies and Mr. Xi’s innovation plans.
Since beginning a third five-year term as party leader in October, Mr. Xi has tried to ease tensions with Western countries — including the United States, Australia and European powers — worried that they are coalescing into a firmer alliance committed to containing Chinese power.
“It would be a very poor strategic move on the part of China to really make a big deal out of this,” Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, said of the downing of the balloon. “The more they huff and puff, the more it reduces the credibility of their story that this was a civilian weather balloon blown off course.”
Despite its mention of possible further actions, the Chinese government’s response to the balloon’s downing also hinted that it does not want to drag out the dispute. Wording choices in the Foreign Ministry statement hinted that Beijing may keep defending its actions, and denying that the balloon was a vehicle for spying, while holding back from reactions that could escalate the dispute.
Notably, the Chinese statement accused the United States of violating international norms by shooting down the balloon, but did not mention any claimed violation of international law. China also said that it would “defend the legitimate rights and interests of the enterprise involved” with the balloon, which could help it make a case that the government was not directly involved in launching the balloon.
The wording “reflects that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not believe downing the balloon is a clear legal violation,” Julian Ku, a professor of law at Hofstra University who studies China’s role in international law, wrote in emailed answers to questions.
“The ministry will say if something is a violation of international law, so it is significant they did not say so here,” he said.
“Moreover, they need to think about their own rights in case the U.S. starts sending balloons or drones into China,” Mr. Ku added. “If they push too hard here, it would undermine a future legal argument they might need to make.”
Some in China are calling for a tougher response. After Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the House, visited Taiwan last year, many on the Chinese internet said they were angry that the Chinese air force had not — as one well-known commentator had said was possible — tried to force away her plane. This time, too, some voices on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media site, said that their leaders should get tougher; maybe, one bellicose commenter said, by shooting down an American plane.
Chinese leaders have enormous power to channel, or suppress, nationalist rancor, and Mr. Xi in particular has erased the space for spontaneous protests, so there is little chance of such anger pushing them into provocative action. That Mr. Blinken had called Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, about canceling his visit to Beijing indicated that both sides wanted to keep communication going, said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University in eastern China.
But the fraying ties between Beijing and Washington may come under much heavier stress if Kevin McCarthy, the new House speaker, visits Taiwan. Mr. McCarthy had said earlier that he might visit the island upon taking up his role, seeking to demonstrate Washington’s support for Taiwan against threats from China, but he has not announced any firm plans.
“China’s never going to tell me where I can and can’t go,” Mr. McCarthy told reporters last week. “But I have nothing scheduled right now.”
Still, even if the balloon crisis dies down quickly, it has shown how low trust has fallen from the thaw that began when “Ping-Pong diplomacy” helped pave the way for relations in the early 1970s, said Professor Zhu. Back then, American table tennis players visited China for a series of matches that helped ease decades of animosity.
“Over 50 years ago, the ice-melting of our relations began with Ping-Pong diplomacy,” Professor Zhu said, echoing a quip that has spread on the Chinese internet. “It was a small ball that started it, and now our relations are in trouble over a big ball or balloon. I never expected this metaphor could happen.”