The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina. Photo: Screengrab / Facebook

Mao Ning, a spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry, said Monday that the balloon that the US shot down over the weekend had been blown into US airspace initially, entirely by accident – and he said the case would test whether the US is sincerely interested in stabilizing and improving Sino-US relations. 

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng had lodged a formal complaint with the US Embassy on Sunday after the US military attacked the Chinese civilian unmanned airship that had just made a highly publicized journey across the United States.

Academics and political commentators said the official Beijing reaction represented a change of tone, from feeling regret to expressing discontent over the incident – and would leave less room than before for China and the US to improve their relationship.

Hopes had been raised last November when US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met face-to-face in Bali, Indonesia, and discussed Ukraine, Taiwan and trade issues. Both sides at that time agreed to resolve bilateral conflicts through dialogue.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken originally planned to visit China on February 5 but the trip was postponed after the offending balloon – in Western headlines termed a Chinese spy balloon – was seen in the sky over Billings, Montana, on February 1.  

The Chinese foreign ministry said last Friday that the balloon was a civilian airship used for mainly meteorological purposes, which, handicapped by limited self-steering capability, had deviated far from its planned course due to the westerlies.

It added that China had no intention of violating the territory or airspace of any sovereign country. It expressed regret for the incident.

A foreign ministry spokesperson, referring to the cancellation of Blinken’s scheduled trip, said, “In fact, neither side has ever announced that there would be a visit.” The spokesperson added that “it is a matter for the US to make its latest announcement, and we respect that.”  

The switch in Beijing to a more confrontational diplomatic tone came after Biden ordered the shooting down of the balloon on Saturday.

The foreign ministry said in a statement Sunday that the US had overreacted during the incident and should not attack what it called a civilian climate research vehicle. It said China reserved the right to make further responses if necessary.

Xie, the vice minister, said the balloon being blown into the US was an accidental incident caused by force majeure. He criticized the US for having ignored China’s explanation and using force on an unmanned airship that was in the process of leaving US airspace.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of International Relations and director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University of China, said US-China relations had become very fragile in recent years as both sides disagreed on technology war and Taiwan matters.
Shi said that, after Blinken’s visit to China was postponed indefinitely, it had become even more difficult for the two countries to reconcile. 

Wu Xinbo, director at the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, said if the balloon had any military capability, the US would not have waited for several days before shooting it down.

Wu said the Biden administration had previously been challenged by its political opponents for Blinken’s plan to visit China. He said the balloon incident gave Washington an opportunity to postpone the trip and ease its political pressure. 
Dylan Loh, an assistant professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs programme, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said China had no intention to push back Blinken’s visit but the Republicans in the US kept using the trip to attack the Biden administration.
Loh said it would be more difficult for Biden to soften its stance in the short run. He said hopefully Blinken would visit China a few months later.

Read: Chinese pundits: Xi-Biden talk can’t fix everything

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3