On Saturday morning, the Pentagon was eager to announce that China would return a U.S. Navy underwater drone after its military scooped up the submersible in the South China Sea late this week and sparked a row that drew in President-elect Donald Trump. As previously reported, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said that “through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV to the United States.”
In retrospect, the Pentagon may have declared victory too soon. According to the South China Morning Post, China’s handover of the drone will come “with conditions“, adding that “Beijing is expected to demand the United States scale down its surveillance in the South China Sea when it hands back a seized US underwater drone.” Beijing would also “seek an expansion in the code for unplanned military encounters in the disputed waters to cover drones like the one seized by a Chinese warship off the Philippine coast near Subic Bay on Thursday.”
Zhang Zhexin, a professor from the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said he expected it would take about 10 days for the drone to be returned. The demand for US concessions stems from the fact that “China is worried that there will be more action from the US during its power transition period,” Zhexin said. “Beijing will possibly talk to the US about expanding the code for unplanned encounters at sea to include unmanned underwater vehicles.”
Currently the code includes a set of standard operational procedures designed to minimize the risks of unintended maritime encounters, but it does not have a procedure to deal with underwater drones.
China is concerned that despite the US insistence that the drone was used for purely peaceful purposes. its deployment had ulterior motives. Zhang Huang, a professor from the PLA National Defence University, said the unmanned underwater vehicle could be used to gather data on Chinese naval actions, and the navigation details of Chinese submarines, People’s Daily reported.
Zhang Baohui, a China security specialist at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said the drone could be used to collect data on factors such as currents and salinity, as well as special sonar signals from Chinese nuclear submarines. “Both uses have military applications. The first could be used to track possible routes by Chinese submarines,” he said.
“The second could be used to detect and trace Chinese nuclear submarines.
“The drone is part of the US’ anti-submarine warfare.”
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that after Trump lashed out at China over the weekend, saying it stole an underwater drone from the U.S. Navy in an “unprecedented act”, Beijing’s official response was muted, although there was far more “passion” in the local nationalist tabloid press, such as the Global Times which mocked Trump’s demeanor as “lagging far behind the White House spokespersons.”
“China has so far practiced restraint at Trump’s provocations as he’s yet to enter the White House,” the Global Times said. “But this attitude won’t last too long after he officially becomes the U.S. president, were he still to treat China in the manner he tweeted today.”
And yet despite the occasional press outburst, Beijing is holding its fire at least until after he takes office next month. Until then, it looks set to continue the stance of “strategic composure” articulated after Trump questioned the U.S.’s policy of diplomatically recognizing Beijing instead of Taiwan.
However, just like Obama is contemplating his options on how to retaliate to “Russian hacking” if at all, China is likewise planning its next move:
Beijing will “strike back firmly” if Trump as president openly challenges China’s core interests like Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea and the East China Sea, said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing and an adviser to China’s State Council, the cabinet. Options include recalling the ambassador, stopping international cooperation, fighting a trade war — even severing diplomatic ties.
“So far, China has adopted a cautious, measured approach of wait and see,” Shi said. “The government is still closely observing what Trump is up to and in the process of forming a clear view on his possible policy. This approach will likely continue into his presidency for the first couple of months.”
While some policy makers in Beijing initially hoped that Trump would bring a more pragmatic approach, that view is quickly fading. Indeed, if anything, with every incremental tweet, Trump promises that it is only a matter of time before a far more serious diplomatic scandal erupts.
Trump’s reaction to the drone incident raises questions about whether that’s the case. He deleted his first tweet after writing “unpresidented” rather than “unprecedented.” Later, after tensions appeared to have been diffused, Trump sent another tweet: “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”
Others, like Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, disagreed and said that “such a response would deprive the U.S. of the ability to assess what information China sought to obtain while analyzing the drone after it was seized”
He added that “It just shows that Trump hasn’t thought out his policy before he tweets it,” Davis said. “The risk is that he is going to confront China to the point where it is destabilizing.”
Indeed, if anything, the drone incident has shown how quickly tensions between the nations could escalate, particularly as China challenges U.S. naval supremacy in Asia, and what makes the situation especially volatile is that suddenly both the actions of China and the US are likewise unpredictable:
“Under Trump, China-U.S. conflicts in the South China Sea are likely to ratchet up or even deepen, with unpredictable incidents like the Bowditch episode to occur from time to time,” Li Jie, a senior researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute in Beijing. One could say the same about China, whose drone confiscation was seen as a substantial escalation in the festering diplomatic conflict between the two nations.
The overseas edition of The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, said on its social media WeChat account Saturday night that China’s capture of the drone was legal because it was conducting “military operations in sensitive waters” and rules about drone activities are ambiguous. “This is a gray area,” the article said. “If the U.S. military can send the drone over, China can certainly seize it.”
Actually, as shown previously, the drone was snatched in a zone in the South China Sea that was in close proximity to the Philippines and not even inside the confines of the nine-dash line.
As Bloomberg concludes, “while the motive for the seizure remains unclear, it’s a concern no matter whether it was ordered from Beijing or the act of a rogue captain, according to Michael Mazza, research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “To me all of these various explanations are troubling,” he said. “If we do learn it was one ship acting on its own that’s not cause for a sigh of relief.”
One thing, however, is certain: should China indeed issue conditions which have to be met prior to the return of the US underwater drone, there will be many more, and far angrier tweets from Trump, the response to which from China will be critical, and may finally force the euphoric market to pay attention. Keep a close eye on what Beijing says in the coming days, and certainly keep a very close eye on Trump’s twitter feed. That’s where the action in the final trading week of the year will be.