Donald Trump’s comments on a U.S. underwater drone seized by the Chinese navy are inflaming an already tense dispute, say analysts – and don’t augur well for future relations between the superpowers.
The president-elect, who campaigned on a pledge to take a hard-line approach in dealing with China, weighed in on the dispute via Twitter twice over the weekend, accusing Beijing of having stolen the drone, which was eventually returned Monday.
China’s seizure of the unmanned underwater vehicle Thursday in the geopolitically sensitive South China Sea has raised tensions barely a month before Trump takes office. Also known as an “ocean glider,” the drone was captured by a Chinese navy vessel about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines, as the oceanographic survey ship USNS Bowditch was attempting to retrieve it, the Pentagon said Friday.
China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday that the drone had been taken and examined to prevent a danger to passing ships, before being returned near to where it was taken after “friendly discussions” with U.S. authorities.
Chinese analysts believe the drone could have been tracking their submarines
Hua’s comments came as an editorial in the state-run People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, said the drone was part of U.S. efforts to “strategically contain China.”
“The unmanned drone was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to U.S. military actions against China,” read the editorial, saying the presence of the USNS Bowditch in the South China Sea was another example of longstanding U.S. efforts “to keep a close watch over China” – a strategic posture that demonstrated “hostility.”
Zhang Baohui, a security expert at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, told VICE News that Chinese analysts believed the drone “could be either collecting maritime data to establish patterns of Chinese submarines activities or trying to directly track nearby Chinese submarines.”
He said China had four or five Type-094 ballistic missile submarines based in the South China Sea that the U.S. has been stepping up efforts to track – in the hopes of improving its ability to hunt them in times of war.
“So for China this is a serious matter. It has been resisting and sabotaging U.S. surveillance activities for a while.” He added that China would not want to escalate the issue, and was always going to return the drone.
“It accomplished what it wanted in that situation by stopping an ongoing U.S. surveillance mission. Moreover, it already sent a signal to the U.S. military that it would not tolerate direct challenge to its core security interests.”
Tensions are high in the South China Sea
The South China Sea – home to a number of territorial disputes between countries in the region – has become even more volatile as China pursues a rapid program of building artificial islands and installing weapons systems in its waters.
In response, U.S. warships have been conducting “freedom of navigation” operations near reclaimed islands, drawing protests from Beijing.
“It’s already a sensitive time and place,” Kerry Brown, associate fellow at British think tank Chatham House, told VICE News.
Since winning the election, Trump has alarmed China by suggesting he could be prepared to abandon the U.S.’ longstanding recognition of the “One China” principle – under which Taiwan is officially viewed as part of the same Chinese nation as the mainland. His blunt comments on the drone seizure have only added heat to the tensions, said Brown.
Chinese state media is questioning Trump’s fitness to lead
Chinese state media has responded to Trump’s tough talk in kind, with the Global Times publishing an editorial Sunday saying the president-elect had “no sense of how to lead a superpower.”
“Since he has not taken office, China has kept a calm attitude toward his provocative remarks,” the editorial warned. “But if he treats China after assuming office in the same way as in his tweets, China will not exercise restraint.”
Victor Gao, a former Chinese Foreign Ministry official, told VICE News that he hoped Trump would adapt his confrontational tone toward China once in office, or the consequences for global security could be dire.
“China-U.S. relations are the most important in the world, and we can’t afford a degradation of them,” he said. If the relationship fell apart, “mankind will not be able to sleep soundly at night.”
Both Zhang and Brown said China appeared to be giving Trump the benefit of the doubt by waiting until he took office to see if his confrontational stance continued.
“It is still too early to tell what may happen under Trump,” said Zhang, adding that the president-elect’s motivation for speaking with Taiwan’s leader was still ambiguous.
The real threat will be if Trump seeks to alter the status quo on China’s “red line” issues once in office, he said. “If he does intend to change the ‘One China’ policy, Sino-U.S. relations will go bad very quickly.”