By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's ties with the United States are coming under strain over the flight of wanted U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden from Hong Kong, with Beijing's main state newspaper praising him on Tuesday for "tearing off Washington's sanctimonious mask".
The White House said the decision by the Chinese territory to allow Snowden to leave was "a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.
The overseas edition of China's People's Daily, which does not spell out official policy but can reflect the government's thinking, said Beijing could not accept "this kind of dissatisfaction and opposition" from the United States.
But experts on both sides say the tirade should quickly blow over, and that neither country will be keen to let ties deteriorate permanently just weeks after a successful summit meeting between President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping.
"China does not want this to affect the overall situation, the central government has always maintained a relatively calm and restrained attitude because Sino-U.S. relations are important," said Zhao Kejing, a professor of international relations at China's elite Tsinghua University.
"The United States has no reason to exert greater pressure, otherwise it would lose moral support."
Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution who was an Asia adviser in Bill Clinton's White House, said sanctioning Beijing was "inconceivable" and linking Snowden to other issues would undo careful policy aimed at handling issues in separate lanes to avoid big ruptures in ties.
"Over the years, we've sought to prevent any serious disagreement in one issue area from spilling over and degrading the entire relationship," he said.
At the summit earlier this month, Obama confronted Xi over allegations of cyber-theft. Xi earlier told a news conference with Obama that China itself was a victim of cyber attacks but that the two sides should work together to develop a common approach.
Snowden's revelations of widespread snooping by the U.S. National Security Agency in China and Hong Kong have given Beijing considerable ammunition in the tit-for-tat exchange.
"In a sense, the United States has gone from a 'model of human rights' to 'an eavesdropper on personal privacy', the 'manipulator' of the centralized power over the international Internet, and the mad 'invader' of other countries' networks," the People's Daily said.
"The world will remember Edward Snowden," the newspaper said. "It was his fearlessness that tore off Washington's sanctimonious mask."
The Chinese government has said it was gravely concerned by Snowden's allegations that the United States had hacked into many networks in Hong and China, including Tsinghua University, which hosts one of the country's Internet hubs, and Chinese mobile network companies. It has said it had taken the issue up with Washington.
"Not only did the U.S. authorities not give us an explanation and apology, it instead expressed dissatisfaction at the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for handling things in accordance with law," wrote Wang Xinjun, a researcher at the Academy of Military Science, in the People's Daily commentary.
State news agency Xinhua was more conciliatory in its tone.
"Both Beijing and Washington fully know that an isolated case should not be allowed to hurt one of the most critical relationships in the world," Xinhua said in a commentary. "It is in the interest of both countries to keep the positive momentum in bilateral relations."
Xi's new government, which took office in March, is eager to be seen on an even footing with the United States as Beijing seeks what it calls a new "big-power" relationship with Washington that takes into account China's rise.
Still, China's academics and state media have been loud in their calls for the Obama administration to apologize to Beijing.
"Being tough is their unilateral attitude, which we can choose not to accept," said Liu Feitao, the deputy chief of U.S. studies at the China Institute of International Studies, a top think-tank affiliated with China's foreign ministry.
"The United States should not shift the real focus," Liu said. "This thing has nothing to do with China, except that America owes China an explanation on the cyber attack leaks by Snowden."
(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)