China has accused the US of “overreaction” and the “indiscriminate use of military force” in shooting down a Chinese balloon that traversed US airspace, saying that the move has damaged bilateral relations.
The Pentagon has described the high-altitude balloon as a surveillance aircraft able to manoeuvre and a US warplane shot it down on Saturday over the Atlantic Ocean after it had crossed the entire US. China said it was a weather balloon that had been blown off course.
The country’s vice-foreign minister, Xie Feng, lodged a formal complaint with the US embassy on Sunday over the incident, accusing Washington of overreacting to an accident “caused by force majeure”, according to a statement posted on the Chinese foreign ministry website.
“The facts are clear … but the United States turned a deaf ear and insisted on indiscriminate use of force against the civilian airship that was about to leave the United States airspace. It obviously overreacted and seriously violated the spirit of international law and international practice,” Xie was quoted as saying.
He accused Washington of “dealing a serious blow” to efforts and progress in stabilising China-US relations since Joe Biden’s summit with Xi Jinping in November.
“China resolutely opposes and strongly protests this, and urges the US to refrain from taking further actions to harm China’s interests and to escalate tensions,” he said.
On Monday, US navy divers searched for remnants of the balloon. A senior defence official told reporters that the nature of the debris was still being assessed but recovery options would “seek to recover all debris and any material of intelligence value”.
The incident came amid tensions in US-China relations over issues including Taiwan, trade and human rights. It also prompted Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, to postpone a visit to Beijing.
On Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the incident tested “the US’s sincerity in stabilising and improving Sino-US relations”.
She said: “The US deliberately exaggerated and hyped [the incident] and even used military force to attack. This is unacceptable and irresponsible.”
She also admitted that the balloon spotted over Latin America belonged to China but said it was a civilian airship used for flight tests that entered the airspace of Latin America and the Caribbean “by accident”.
Yoshihiko Isozaki, the Japanese deputy chief cabinet secretary, said on Monday that a flying object thought to be Chinese and similar to the one shot down by the US, had been spotted at least twice over northern Japan since 2020, the Associated Press reported.
China has previously objected when foreign military surveillance planes flew off its coast in international airspace. In 2001, a US navy plane conducting routine surveillance near the Chinese coast collided with a Chinese fighter plane, killing the Chinese fighter pilot and damaging the American plane, which was forced to make an emergency landing at a Chinese naval airbase on the southern island of Hainan. China detained the 24-member US navy aircrew for 10 days until the US expressed regret.
Prof William Hurst, the deputy director at the Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge, said the balloon incident had occurred in a much more negative climate than the spy plane incident. “The public revelation complicated domestic politics in the US, which were already fraught,” he said. “Its effect will likely be smaller, but take longer to unwind.”
The diplomatic row prompted a range of online responses, from patriotic to sarcastic.
“It started with ping-pong and ended with balloons. Applying the ‘two balls’ analogy to describe the contemporary Sino-US relations couldn’t be more apt,” said a Chinese commenter, referring to the 1971 visit of the US ping-pong team to Beijing that paved the way for the 1972 re-establishment of US-China diplomatic ties after the Communist party took power in 1949.
Xiaoqian Zhu contributed research.
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