By Ryan Woo and Greg Torode
BEIJING/HONG KONG (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – China could respond to the US shooting down of its suspected spy balloon after warning of “serious repercussions”, but analysts say any move will likely be fine-tuned to avoid escalation of the ties that both sides have tried to forge reparation.
Regional analysts and diplomats are closely watching China’s response after a U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon — which Beijing said was an errant weather-monitoring aircraft — in the Atlantic off South Carolina on Saturday.
China on Sunday condemned the attack as an “overreaction,” saying it reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with “similar situations,” without elaborating.
Some analysts said they will scan the seas and skies of East Asia for signs of tension, given the growing deployment of ships and aircraft from China and the United States and its allies.
But while bilateral tension has increased in recent days due to the balloon incident, Beijing and Washington have tried to improve relations.
The balloon’s discovery in the upper atmosphere above North America prompted the United States to postpone a visit to Beijing this week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. That trip was the result of a November summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.
Both sides are widely seen as keen to stabilize relations after a turbulent few years, with the Biden administration wary of tensions escalating into conflict and Xi eyeing a recovery for the world’s second-largest economy after a major crash of the COVID-19.
The path to rebuilding US-China relations likely remains on track, said Zhao Tong, a researcher at the China office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting researcher at Princeton University.
“The two sides still have a strong shared interest in stabilizing and responsibly managing bilateral relations,” Zhao told RockedBuzz via Reuters.
SWEEP UNDER THE CARPET
Collin Koh, a security officer at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, predicted that China would continue to respond vigorously to US military reconnaissance patrols but would halt before confrontation.
Even in the quietest moments, Chinese forces actively shadow US military patrols, particularly at sea, amid tensions over Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea, regional military insiders said.
“Against manned rigs we might expect China to exercise restraint, but against unmanned ones it becomes more uncertain, especially if Beijing believes it is possible to contain the fallout since it does not involve crew,” Koh said.
He noted China’s seizure of a deployed US submarine glider from an oceanographic research vessel off the Philippines in December 2016. The Chinese navy later returned it to a US warship.
Christopher Twomey, a security scholar at the US Naval Postgraduate School in California, said any Chinese response would be limited.
“I expect them to protest moderately, but I hope to sweep all of this under the rug and restore progress to high-level visitation within a few months,” Twomey said, speaking in a private capacity.
Zhu Feng, executive dean of Nanjing University’s School of International Studies, said US officials should stop “proclaiming” the events to ensure a smooth return to the normalized communications they had previously demanded from Beijing.
Zhu expressed the hope that “the two governments can move on as soon as possible so that Sino-US relations can return to an institutionalized channel of communication and dialogue.”
Some analysts are watching Chinese state media and online activity for hints of any clamor for a tougher response, as major Chinese state media have stuck to reporting official statements.
On heavily censored Chinese social media, there was little evidence that nationalistic anger had been stirred over the incident, with many netizens asking what the fuss was about a balloon.
“Now, China can retire its satellites!” joked one user.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing and Greg Torode in Hong Kong; Editing by William Mallard)