HONG KONG — China on Thursday accused the United States of escalating the dispute over the downed surveillance balloon, as concerns grew that the saga may send relations between the world’s two largest economies further into a tailspin.
The episode and the mystery surrounding subsequent aerial objects shot down over North America have fueled a domestic media frenzy and piled political pressure on the White House, but also intensified concerns about the global fallout from U.S.-China diplomacy being knocked off course.
As President Joe Biden prepared to give his most extensive remarks yet on the matter, Beijing hit back anew over what it has framed as Washington’s overreaction. But the response has also undermined China's recent efforts to signal a diplomatic softening, experts told NBC News.
'Bluffing' from Beijing?
Biden has been under pressure from both Republicans and Democrats to tell the public more, and he could speak as early as Thursday, three people familiar with the matter told NBC News. Asked about Biden’s potential remarks, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Thursday that the U.S. “cannot ask for communication and dialogue on one hand, while sharpening differences and escalating crises.”
An early sign of the rising hostility came when Beijing declined Washington’s request for a secure call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his counterpart, National Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. China later said it declined the call because the U.S. had not “created the proper atmosphere for dialogue.”
In an interview with NBC News on Wednesday, Austin said that he had emphasized the need to maintain open lines of communication with China, and that Wei also recognized its importance. But “when something happens, they somehow tend to shut down our military channels of communication,” he said. “I think that’s dangerous.”
Defense Secretary Austin speaks out about shot down unidentified objectsFeb. 16, 202301:58
Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, said China’s refusal of the call suggested it was “bluffing” in its harsh rhetoric, as it would not boycott an essential crisis management tool if it had any real intention of escalating the situation militarily.
“That’s why they think it’s safe for them to use the military hotline as diplomatic leverage,” he said. But it also shows, Sung said, that China’s recent pivot away from its hard-line “wolf warrior” diplomacy is not wholehearted.
“China’s attempt at moderating its diplomatic outreach has just been revealed as a tactical shift only, something that it is ready to do away with the second that a major external crisis hits,” he said.
The foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, also urged Congress to avoid actions that might escalate the situation, after the Senate unanimously passed two resolutions on Wednesday condemning China for sending the surveillance balloon into U.S. airspace. A similar unanimous House resolution was criticized on Thursday by China’s ceremonial parliament, which said it “deliberately exaggerates the ‘China threat.’”
U.S. lawmakers “took advantage of the issue and fanned the flames, fully exposing their sinister intention to oppose China and contain China,” according to the statement from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress.
Beijing says Washington overreacted by shooting down the 200-foot balloon, insisting it was a civilian research vessel that strayed off course, though the U.S. says it was carrying multiple antennas for collecting signals intelligence.
Though it initially expressed regret over the incident, which led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a planned trip to Beijing, China has since sharpened its tone and accused the U.S. of hypocrisy. This week, it said U.S. balloons had violated its airspace more than 10 times since May 2022, including over the sensitive Xinjiang and Tibet regions. The Biden administration denies the allegation.
Beijing has also threatened unspecified retaliatory measures after Washington blacklisted six entities it said were linked to Chinese aerospace programs. On Thursday, the Chinese commerce ministry imposed new sanctions on the U.S. defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon over arms sales to Taiwan in what appeared to be an unrelated action.
China’s response to the balloon incident has been “very reactive” and lacking in a clear objective, said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
“There’s some sort of internal tension between one group that wants to lower the temperature with the U.S. and improve relations and at least set the stage for Xi Jinping to conduct some diplomacy and possibly a future visit to the U.S.,” he said, referring to the Chinese leader. “On the other hand there’s a nativist cohort that is looking at the U.S.-China relationship in very zero-sum terms and very adversarially, seeing tremendous hostility and really overlooking the blatant violation of U.S. sovereignty that precipitated the crisis.”
Thompson, the former director of China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the Department of Defense, dismissed the idea of U.S. balloons flying over China and said the U.S. and Chinese balloon programs were “really not comparable.”
“The Army uses balloons in exercises, including in the Asia-Pacific, but it does that in partnership with other countries, with their permission in their airspace, and they’re very careful to have controls so that they don’t violate another country’s sovereign airspace,” he said.
Wang Yong, director of the American Studies Center at Peking University in Beijing, said the U.S. action against the balloon had set a bad precedent for managing future crises in U.S.-China relations.
“China and other countries can also follow the example of the U.S. to take similar actions,” he said. “It’s possible that this will lead to more competition and more tensions.”
The crisis has already drawn in other countries such as Japan, which said this week that three objects detected in its airspace in 2019, 2020 and 2021 were “strongly presumed to be unmanned reconnaissance balloons flown by China.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded that Japan “needs to be objective and impartial on this instead of following the U.S.’s suit in dramatizing it.”
A positive sign for U.S.-China relations, experts say, would be a meeting at this weekend’s Munich Security Conference between Blinken and Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, or other senior diplomats from the two countries.
That “could help create a new reassuring image that the two sides still have every intention of maintaining a working relationship,” Sung said, “and that in spite of the acrimony, neither side is truly invested in taking the relationship beyond repair.”