China accused the United States of an “overreaction” when it used a fighter jet to shoot down a suspected surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast, as nationalist Chinese commentators blamed runaway political pressure in Washington for escalating the incident.

In a statement on Sunday morning local time, China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that had unexpectedly drifted off course, adding that “the Chinese side has clearly asked the U.S. side to properly handle the matter in a calm, professional and restrained manner.”

“Under such circumstances, the U.S. use of force is a clear overreaction and a serious violation of international practice,” and China will “resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the company concerned,” the ministry said.

Later on Sunday, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei added, without elaborating, that the Chinese military reserved the right to use “necessary means” in response to similar incidents in the future.

Beijing is under increasing pressure to downplay the significance of the balloon and limit diplomatic fallout as videos of an F-22 fighter jet’s missile puncturing it are shared widely on Chinese social media.

The balloon’s highly visible journey across the United States caused a last-minute delay of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing this weekend, undermining an attempt by Beijing to mend its most important bilateral relationship. China replied that it had never officially announced plans for the visit.

In this photo provided by Brian Branch, a large balloon drifts above the Kingstown, N.C. area, with an airplane and its contrail seen below it.

In this photo provided by Brian Branch, a large balloon drifts above the Kingstown, N.C. area, with an airplane and its contrail seen below it. (Brian Branch via AP)

The setback is an embarrassment for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who began his norm-defying third term in office with a show of diplomatic friendliness that experts interpreted as a pragmatic effort to ease tensions with Western nations, as he deals with internal discontent over a slowing economy and a huge wave of coronavirus infections.

After an initially subdued and jokey reaction on Chinese social media — the craft was dubbed “the wandering balloon,” a pun on Chinese sci-fi blockbuster “The Wandering Earth” — nationalist internet users took a harder tone on Sunday.

Influential commentator Hu Xijin blamed American “politicization” and “hype” for preventing the incident from escalating, saying that competition to look tough on China meant that the United States “has already lost its objectivity.”

Earlier in the week, Chinese commentators had poked fun at the United States for not taking down the balloon immediately, with some highlighting that in 2019, a Chinese J-10C fighter jets used missiles to shoot a “foreign high-altitude reconnaissance balloon” out of the sky over southwestern Yunnan province.

A senior Biden administration official responded to China’s statement by saying that the United States is “confident [the balloon] was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites” and that “its route over the United States near many potentially sensitive sites contradicts the PRC government explanation that it is a weather balloon.” PRC stands for the People’s Republic of China.

China believes the incident was largely caused by domestic political pressure in the United States and therefore will not try to escalate further, said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Of course we are not happy about the decision to shoot it down,” but statements about taking further action were more “diplomatic posture” rather than threat, he said.

(Noga Ami-rav/Stars and Stripes)

According to Wu, the United States missed an opportunity to frame the balloon as evidence that Blinken’s visit to China was necessary to improve crisis management, whereby Blinken “could have said, ‘this makes clear that I need to go to China to improve communication over unexpected incidents.’ ”

Mary Gallagher, director of the International Institute and a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, disagreed: “It was impossible for Blinken to go and negotiate really hard issues in the context of a very visible balloon floating over the U.S.”

The fallout for the bilateral relationship will in part depend on whether the U.S. military is able to demonstrate convincingly and publicly that equipment recovered from the balloon was used for espionage. If the balloon is shown to be carrying surveillance equipment, China will have been caught in a brazen attempt to spy on the United States.

But a more complicated question is whether Xi was aware of what has happening before the United States went public. The most powerful Chinese leader in decades has in part justified his firm personal rule by promising to make China safer, arguing that the nation faces an unprecedented level of external threats requiring top-down control. If it was an accident left unresolved, then that may suggest Xi was out of the loop.

“If it was done by the military or a company or the Chinese Academy of Sciences without his knowledge ... then that makes me worried about what is happening in China domestically,” Gallagher said.

Beijing’s inability to resolve the incident before it escalated augurs badly for any future accidents involving the Chinese military in highly charged environments like the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Analysts fear that eroded trust and limited communication between Washington and Beijing will allow accidents from regular military exercises or surveillance operations to escalate into international incidents.

In December, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command accused the People’s Liberation Army of an “unsafe maneuver” that brought a Chinese fighter jet within 20 feet of an RC-135 reconnaissance plane, months after the Pentagon warned of an unprecedented spike in “aggressive” behavior from China in skies above the South China Sea.

The balloon incident shows that China needs to improve transparency when accidents occur, said Wu, the Fudan scholar. But he argued that such failures are mutual, citing an incident in 2021 when the U.S. military waited days before publicly disclosing information about a nuclear-powered Navy submarine that was damaged during a collision in the South China Sea. “Both sides need to work out a way to react more immediately to accidents,” he said.

Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington, D.C., and Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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