While bilateral tensions have risen over the balloon incident, China and the US are seeking to improve ties.
Regional analysts and diplomats are closely watching China’s response after a US fighter jet shot down an alleged “spy” balloon – which Beijing says was a faulty weather tracking craft – in the Atlantic Ocean off the United States.
China on Sunday condemned the move as an “overreaction”, saying it reserved the right to use necessary means to deal with “similar situations”, without giving details.
Some analysts said they would be scrutinizing the seas and skies of East Asia for signs of tension, given the growing deployment of ships and aircraft from China and the US and their allies.
But while bilateral tensions have risen in recent days over the balloon incident, Beijing and Washington are seeking to improve relations.
The discovery of balloons in the upper atmosphere over North America has prompted the US to postpone Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing this week.
The trip was the result of a summit meeting between President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in November.
Both sides are widely seen as seeking to stabilize relations after a turbulent few years, with the Biden administration suspecting tensions have escalated into conflict and Xi eyeing the recovery of China, the world’s second-largest economy, after a severe downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The path to rebuilding U.S.-China relations likely remains on track, said Zhao Tong, a senior fellow in the China office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting scholar at Princeton University.
“The two sides still share a strong interest in stabilizing and responsibly managing bilateral relations,” Zhao said.
Sweep it under the carpet
Collin Koh, a security expert at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, predicted that China would continue to respond vigorously to US military reconnaissance patrols, but stop confrontations.
Even in calmer moments, Chinese forces actively monitor US military patrols, particularly at sea, amid tensions over Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea, regional military envoys say.
“We might expect China to be reticent with manned platforms, but with unmanned ones it becomes more uncertain — especially if Beijing believes it’s possible to contain the fallout because it doesn’t involve a crew,” Koh said.
He pointed out that China seized a US submarine deployed by an oceanographic research vessel off the Philippines in December 2016. The Chinese navy later returned it to the US warship.
Christopher Twomey, a security expert at the US Naval Postgraduate School in California, said any response from China would be limited.
“I would expect them to protest moderately, but I hope we can sweep this under the rug and re-establish progress on senior-level visits in a few months,” Twomey said, speaking in a private capacity.
‘Turn the page’
Zhu Feng, executive dean of Nanjing University’s School of International Studies, said US officials should stop “rushing” events to ensure a smooth return to the normalized communication they have previously sought from Beijing.
Zhu expressed hope that “the two governments can turn the page as soon as possible so that Sino-US relations return to the institutionalized channel of communication and dialogue.”
Some analysts are watching Chinese state media and online activity for signs of any clamor for a tougher response, as China’s main state media has stuck to reporting official statements.
There was little evidence on China’s heavily censored social media that the incident had fueled nationalist anger, with many netizens wondering what the fuss was about over a balloon.
“Now China can withdraw its satellites!” one user joked.