HONG KONG — China accused the U.S. on Monday of “indiscriminate use of force” in shooting down a suspected spy balloon over the weekend as the U.S. military searched for remnants off the Carolina coast.
The dispute has further strained tense relations between the world’s two largest economies, leading Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a planned trip to Beijing.
The Biden administration says China was using the high-altitude balloon for surveillance. China says it was a “civilian unmanned airship” used for meteorological research that strayed off course, and it said Monday that it had lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The U.S. “obviously overreacted and seriously violated the spirit of international law and international practice,” Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said in comments to the embassy posted on the Foreign Ministry website.
He said the U.S. action had “seriously impacted and damaged” efforts by both countries to stabilize relations since President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Indonesia in November, which paved the way for Blinken’s China visit. China reserves the right to take further action, Xie said.
The disclosure last week that the U.S. military was monitoring the balloon caused a political uproar, with Republicans criticizing Biden for not having shot it down earlier. Defense officials, who said the balloon was of limited use in collecting intelligence, waited until it was over the Atlantic and shot it down Saturday afternoon with a single missile from an F-22 Raptor.
A senior Biden administration official said Sunday that while every possibility was considered, “the only workable way to bring it down safely was the way we did it.”
The official said the remains of the balloon would be analyzed as they were pulled out of the water.
“Closely observing the balloon in flight has allowed us to better understand this Chinese program and further confirmed its mission was surveillance,” said the official, who discussed intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity.
The official said Chinese surveillance balloons had briefly flown over the continental U.S. once before during the Biden administration and at least three times while Donald Trump was president, which was discovered only after he left office.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning confirmed that a balloon spotted over Latin America also belonged to China, saying it was on a flight test for civilian purposes, that it had limited steering capability and that it had unintentionally entered the airspace of countries in the region.
“China is a responsible country, and we always act in accordance with international law,” she said at a regular news briefing on Monday.
Mao did not say which Chinese company or entity owned the balloon that was downed in the U.S. She said the government would “firmly safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of relevant Chinese companies.”
For China, the U.S. reaction suggests that not much would have come from Blinken’s visit anyway, said Benjamin Ho, an assistant professor in the China program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“If the Americans played down this issue, then the Chinese could take it as a sign that the Americans were really sincere about meeting them and not wanting this escalation of poor relations to continue,” he said. “But in this case that didn’t happen, so in other words we are back to square one.”
Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that while the balloon incident was a major misstep by Beijing, postponing Blinken’s trip was “a bit of a knee-jerk reaction” that could demonstrate the White House’s concern with domestic politics.
It “shows the deep sensitivities to the optics of these early maneuvers by the administration to reset relations,” he said.
Zhu Feng, the director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, said China would continue to be a contentious issue as the 2024 U.S. election approaches.
“U.S. politicians are trying to make the Chinese threat bigger, using the Chinese factor to intensify Americans’ sense of crisis and promote domestic cohesion,” he said.
Nonetheless, he said he expected communication between the two countries to resume, noting that Biden and Xi have spoken by phone multiple times in the last two years despite the bilateral tensions.
“China doesn’t want a new cold war between the two sides, much less a complete decoupling,” he said. “What China wants more is to develop its own economy and the lives of its people.”