Edward Snowden's holing up in Hong Kong, his revelations about US spying activities and the circumstances of his departure prompted a harsher response from Washington than should have been expected. Instead of diplomatic language, there was anger and suggestions of consequences. But as much as the former intelligence contractor's actions have galvanised the attention of US officials and politicians, his case is an isolated one. It cannot under any circumstances be allowed to disrupt the positive momentum of ties.
Snowden's surfacing in Hong Kong days after the summit between presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama would seem to have poured cold water on the leaders' achievements. They had put the basis of better relations in place during seven hours of talks in California, pledging a new era of trust and understanding. The subsequent accusations and veiled warnings from Washington towards Beijing and Hong Kong threaten to undermine that progress. The whistle-blower's case has to be put into perspective lest matters spin out of control. This is, after all, just a single case involving a low-ranking operative. His revelations that the US National Security Agency was prying uninvited into the private communications of American citizens and foreign institutions and companies was hardly earth-shattering; it had been long suspected. US authorities are outraged that documents have been stolen and secrets and methods made public, while there is anger that American intelligence has been accessing phone records and private e-mails. This is not cause to damage ties between the world's two most powerful economies. There is too much at stake to allow that to happen.
Officials and lawmakers, US Secretary of State John Kerry among them, have hinted of punitive measures against nations perceived as having helped Snowden. These are precisely the responses that Xi and Obama were trying to avoid when speaking of a new relationship. Politicking and harsh rhetoric are no way of treating a partner. There has to instead be calm, diplomacy and channels of resolution.
Matters of greater importance to the Sino-US relationship and the world should be focused upon. There are any number: North Korea, Iran, Syria, global warming and enhanced trade and investment are just a few. Working together on these will help build the trust and co-operation that is needed. Harping on about the Snowden case will only be a troubling distraction.