The more relations between China and the United States deteriorate, the more the world depends on the two powers not to allow the fallout from provocative incidents to blow dangerously out of proportion. A case in point has just played itself out in the North American skies, with the United States deploying an advanced fighter jet to shoot down a Chinese balloon suspected of surveillance activity. World reaction includes deep concern that an escalation of bilateral tensions is unavoidable. But it also recalls incidents more than 20 years ago that were even more serious in the sense they cost human life. Thanks to calm diplomacy, they did no lasting damage to the world’s most important relationship. Wiser heads prevailed. They are needed again to absorb the shock waves of the latest incident. Thankfully they have made themselves heard at the highest level. The headline casualty – a visit to Beijing as scheduled by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken – looks certain to be revived before too long. The US waited nearly a week after the balloon first entered its air space to send a jet to take it down with a missile over coastal waters to avoid the risk of debris to civilians. The White House said it was not the first such case of intrusion and admitted that this one presented no military or physical threat to people on the ground. But the US shot it down anyway, reflecting mounting pressure from Republican politicians on President Joe Biden to get tough on China over the incident. Beijing slammed the attack on an “unmanned airship” as an overreaction and reserved the right to further respond. A formal protest to the US embassy has followed. Blinken and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, tried to put the issue in a constructive perspective, after analysts agreed it was likely to deepen mutual suspicions and dash hopes of a reset of bilateral ties. The Chinese foreign ministry said Wang and Blinken had discussed how to handle the “accidental incident” in a calm and professional manner. And Blinken said he still planned to visit Beijing when conditions allowed, and the US would continue to maintain lines of communication with China on a number of issues. The circumstances of the death of a Chinese pilot in a collision with a US spy plane in 2001, and those of three state media journalists in the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, are far removed from those of the balloon incident. But they set the same challenge to political leaders and diplomats to keep lines of communication open. Differences between the two sides remain wide. Divided priorities over Taiwan reunification and the war in Ukraine look irreconcilable. The latest incident is a reminder that without communication, avoidable accidents, misadventure and suspicion can carry the seeds of unthinkable conflict.