The balloon’s ignominious end – burst by a missile fired by a US jet – also plays into volatile Chinese politics. It represents fresh embarrassment for Xi, whose cementing of a third term has been overshadowed by a badly botched effort to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, unprecedented anti-lockdown protests and now a major crisis with the United States. It begs the question of whether the flight was a deliberate act to provoke the US or was a mistake. Or were hawkish Chinese armed forces seeking to embarrass the top leadership, or to derail attempts to ease the temperature with the US ahead of Blinken’s visit?

The episode is a reminder that while the ruling Chinese Communist Party is ruthless and repressive, high-stakes power politics is as treacherous in Beijing as Washington. Like in the US, the fraught politics of US-China relations can lead to decisions that cause escalation.

American backlash

Biden’s decision not to shoot down the balloon until it was over the Atlantic coast offered an easy opening to Republicans keen to label him as weak before his expected reelection bid.

“As usual when it comes to national defense and foreign policy, the Biden administration reacted at first too indecisively and then too late,” McConnell said.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio cast the incident as a blatant challenge to American power, and suggested Biden’s temperate action raised questions over whether he would stand up to worse Chinese threats, for instance over democratic Taiwan.

“The message embedded in this to the world is, we can fly a balloon over airspace of the United States of America, and you won’t be able to do anything about it to stop us,” Rubio, the vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Other Republicans, including ex-president Donald Trump, pounced when the balloon was not immediately shot down, despite warnings that its vast size could cause damage or deaths on the ground. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said, for instance, on Fox that “what began as a spy balloon has become a trial balloon testing President Biden’s strength and resolve, and unfortunately, the president failed that test.” Republicans failed to note that officials said several balloon flights over the US occurred during the Trump administration, although the transiting of those suspected Chinese spy balloons during the previous administration was only discovered after Biden took office, a senior administration official told CNN’s Natasha Bertrand on Sunday.

Republicans have long seen hawkishness as a political weapon. But many Democrats also see China as a rising threat, which is likely to trigger hardline policies that will deepen America’s estrangement with its rival.

While the Biden administration has faced criticism for not publicizing the balloon earlier in the week, the idea that the president is in China’s pocket is belied by a policy toward the communist giant that has cranked up a confrontational stance adopted by Trump. (The ex-president had initially cozied up to Xi and agreed to a failed trade deal before turning on Beijing when a pandemic that originated in China threatened his reelection bid).

Biden has deepened US ties with Asian allies designed to counter China – securing expanded access to bases in the Philippines, for instance, and reaching agreement with Japan on the offensive capacity of US Marines there in recent weeks. He has also sought to bolster Western access and manufacturing of semi-conductors in a blow to China. If any foreign autocrats see Biden as a soft touch, all they have to do is look at the multi-billion dollar effective proxy war he’s fighting against Russia in Ukraine in the biggest mobilization of the Western alliance since the Soviet Union fell.

Still, the political fallout will still likely impede Biden, even if it’s hard to imagine voters making his handling of China – absent a future major crisis – the decisive factor in 2024. The balloon flap is the latest unexpected event, including the controversy over classified vice presidential documents found in his Delaware home and a former office, to frustrate Biden’s attempt to focus on strong job growth and the extremism of the new House Republican majority ahead of his expected run for a second term.

The House will seek to rain on his parade further this week with a possible resolution condemning his handling of the surveillance balloon, which could pass before the State of the Union address, CNN’s Melanie Zanona reported.

How political fury will affect diplomacy

The political storm could create conditions in the US that will complicate efforts to avert the dangerous plunge in Sino-US relations – the original purpose of Blinken’s mission.

If Biden further escalates US reaction to the incident, after shooting down the balloon, he could create a furious counter-reaction in Beijing that will make the tensions even worse.

There were signs in the run-up to Blinken’s visit that Xi’s government, beset with problems at home, wanted to tone down the heat of the relationship at least, building on the Chinese leader’s meeting with Biden in Bali last year. There had even been speculation that the trip could lead to an announcement of another summit between the leaders this year.

But if the balloon incident turns US public opinion further against China, the president will have even less latitude for diplomacy aimed at slowing the pace toward confrontation.

Another complication is a possible visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to follow the one by Democratic predecessor Nancy Pelosi last year, which took place despite White House discomfort. China reacted furiously over that trip by initiating massive naval exercises close to the democratic island. It has already warned that such a visit would violate the bedrock “One China” principle that governs relations between Washington and Beijing – a position the US does not accept. Given political uproar in Washington, McCarthy, who just set up a bipartisan committee to probe what he says is the threat from Communist China, has even greater incentives to travel to Taipei now despite the current extreme tensions. “I don’t think China can tell me to go, any time, at any place,” McCarthy said after meeting Biden last week.

Another risk is that the balloon crisis could exacerbate already tense situations where US and Chinese forces come into close contact, including on and over the South China Sea and around Taiwan. A miscommunication between ships’ captains, for instance, that boils over into a military clash could set off a far wider escalation. This is why experts counseling a restoration of calm were dismayed by a leaked memo written by US Air Force Gen. Michael Minihan that warned that his “gut” tells him that America needs to be ready for war with China within two years. The memo does not match US assessments of Beijing’s capabilities or assessments about its designs on Taiwan. But it deepened the sense that a conflict is brewing and may be inevitable.

Past crises were defused – but today’s China is different

There are plenty of precedents for disastrous moments in US-China relations being defused – testimony to the extreme economic and humanitarian price both sides, and the rest of the world, would pay in the event of a wider conflict.

During the Kosovo war in 1999, for instance, US bombs crashed into the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in what NATO said was an accident but that caused an eruption of fury in China. In 2001, just after President George W. Bush took office, a US surveillance plane and a Chinese jet collided over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed and intense diplomacy was needed to free the US crew, who made an emergency landing on a Chinese island, 11 days later.

These incidents, however, happened in a different age, when US policy was designed to usher China into the world economy, as a competitor but not an adversary. That process failed after China took a nationalist turn under Xi and as its power and ambitions grew at an astonishing rate.

Two decades on, Beijing’s aims are increasingly seen in Washington as incompatible with US hopes of promoting democracy, a rules-based international system and its own power in the Pacific. But when the US talks about putting guardrails around its relationship with China and protecting the Western-backed rule of law, Beijing believes America wants to thwart its own great power destiny. As Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning put it on January 31, “We are against defining the entire China-US relations with competition alone and using competition as an excuse to contain and suppress others.”

This is why many observers in both countries see the US and China now on inevitably clashing courses – a doom-laden possibility that seems only more likely after the seemingly innocuous flight of one balloon across the US.