The US-China relationship is entering a dangerous phase. So far, it has been a case of controlled management from both sides with probing signals testing boundaries.
The latest incident was the case of an underwater US drone operated by a US naval vessel carrying out research in international waters in the South China Sea, much of which China claims.
This is where China has claimed almost all of the contested islands and has formed artificial ones equipped with military facilities and structures.
The US is challenging Beijing’s control, with its ships seeking to exercise freedom of navigation through international waters.
Apparently, the drone in question was not on a dangerous mission and was said to be involved in scientific research. China seized the drone and the US demanded its return.
“It [the drone] is ours and it is clearly marked as ours, and we would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again,” a US Pentagon spokesman said.
China agreed to do this, putting its own spin on it.
A statement from the Chinese Ministry of National Defense sought to make the seizure of the drone — a piece of “unidentified equipment,” as it called it — a matter of checking on navigational safety.
“China decided to return it to the US side in an appropriate manner, and China and the US have all along been in communication about it,” the ministry said.
However, it added: “During this process, the US side’s unilateral and open hyping up is inappropriate and is not beneficial to the smooth resolution of the issue.”
There was also the significant rider that China was “resolutely opposed” to the long-standing surveillance “in the presence of” Chinese waters by US ships and aircraft. In other words, the drone was operated in Chinese waters by a US naval vessel and next time China might not be so sanguine.
It was reported in some Western media that although the US drone and surveillance program is unclassified, the US is increasingly relying on the oceanographic data supplied by such machines to help track China’s growing and increasingly sophisticated fleet of submarines. In other words, next time around it might create a more serious incident.
Next time, it will be US president-elect Donald Trump’s administration that deals with the situation. If Trump’s remarks on Twitter about the incident are any guide to his future actions, they will be more colorful than those of the present US administration.
“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act,” Trump said on Twitter.
In addition, Trump did not seem keen on getting it back.
Beijing’s reaction to this has not been spelled out. China is probably waiting for Trump to take over as US president before it comes to any definite conclusion.
However, it did react, initially in a measured and diplomatic way, to the telephone conversation Trump had with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), in which she congratulated him on his election victory. This seemed to overturn the “one China” principle that has been the foundation of US-China diplomatic ties since the late 1970s.
The two countries established formal diplomatic relations in 1979.
Beijing lodged “stern representations,” urging the US to adhere to the “one China” principle and “prudently” handle affairs in relation to Taiwan.