Beijing Is Ready To Go Eyeball to Eyeball With Trump

The U.S. president-elect took the first steps up the ladder of escalation, but China’s seizure of a naval drone shows it’s glad to follow.

A man buys a Chinese newspaper, with the headline that reads "Outsider strikes back", featuring Donald Trump on the front page in Beijing on November 10, 2016.
The American public on November 9 voted for the Republican candidate Donald Trump to be the 45th President of the United States.  / AFP / GREG BAKER        (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
A man buys a Chinese newspaper, with the headline that reads "Outsider strikes back", featuring Donald Trump on the front page in Beijing on November 10, 2016. The American public on November 9 voted for the Republican candidate Donald Trump to be the 45th President of the United States. / AFP / GREG BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Spring has come early to the South China Sea. Many analysts had assumed that China would do something to test the newly elected president once he was in office. George W. Bush faced an earlier incident when a Chinese frigate nearly rammed the USNS Bowditch in March 2001 and the spy plane collision a few weeks later, months after he was inaugurated. Barack Obama had the USNS Impeccable incident in March 2009. But for President-elect Donald Trump, China’s seizure of an underwater drone, affiliated with the USNS Bowditch, has come ahead of schedule.

We can only speculate why. Perhaps this was a response to Trump’s controversial phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and subsequent comments about changing America’s stance toward the “One-China” policy. Perhaps it was something that was going to happen anyway.

The drone seizure has torpedoed the rapprochement between the U.S. and Chinese navies that President Barack Obama’s administration has steadily pursued over the past few years. The goodwill built up through port visits, participation in joint exercises, leadership discussions, and practical agreements has been badly damaged. There’s a simple term for seizing a vessel at sea without lawful reason: piracy. In the eyes of international law, this action puts the Chinese navy in the same category as Somali pirates with AK-47 assault rifles.

Chinese officials have repeatedly said their country does not pose a threat to the rule of law in the South China Sea. President Xi Jinping told an audience so in Singapore in November 2015: “There has never been any problem with the freedom of navigation and overflight; nor will there ever be any in the future, for China needs unimpeded commerce through these waters more than anyone else.”

The seizure of the drone is a reminder to countries in Southeast Asia and beyond that Chinese actions are often inconsistent with their smooth assurances. It only adds to the alarm felt in regional capitals about the consequences of China’s rise and increases their desire to mitigate the risks through new security arrangements — whether with the United States or with each other or among nearby friends such as Japan, India, and Australia.

For China to increase these concerns, it must have decided that it had more to gain than lose from stealing the drone. It may want access to the technology and data on board the device, or it might wish to deter the United States from using drones near its submarines. Above all, however, it probably wants to send a message about the limits to U.S. power in the region and about the consequences of trespassing on its core interests, particularly over Taiwan.

The USNS Bowditch was an obvious target for a calculated escalation. Like the USNS Impeccable in 2009 (and the EP-3 surveillance plane in 2001), the ship is unarmed. It has a predominantly civilian crew, and its mission is surveillance and ocean research. The Chinese military loathes its activities, regarding them as a particular threat to the security of its ballistic missile submarines based at Yulin, on the southern tip of Hainan. For China, this is not peaceful research but preparation for military conflict. If the United States knows how to trace and follow Beijing’s submarines, it will be able to neutralize part of its nuclear deterrent.

It’s theoretically possible that the seizure was entirely spontaneous. According to James Fanell, the former director of intelligence at U.S. Pacific Fleet and now at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, since October 2015 Chinese vessels have shadowed every American warship entering the international waters of the South China Sea; the Bowditch’s shadow, according to the U.S. Defense Department, was a Dalang III-class rescue and salvage ship, the Nan-Jiu 510. The explanation given by the Chinese Ministry of Defense that “a Chinese naval lifeboat located an unidentified device in the waters of the South China Sea” is laughable, but it is at least conceivable that the Chinese crew just grabbed a target of opportunity without a direct order from Beijing.

The Pentagon’s account of the incident, however, makes this seem unlikely. The Bowditch’s littoral battlespace sensing gliders can remain at sea for days, weeks, or even months, and the moments when they can be located and seized on the surface are rare. The fact that the Nan-Jiu 510 happened to be in a position to intervene at just the moment the Bowditch had retrieved one drone from the water and was about to retrieve a second suggests, in retaliation for Trump’s recent comments, it had been ordered to follow the American boat with the explicit intention of seizing the drone.

The location of the incident offers further clues about China’s calculated aggression. It happened about 600 miles from China, outside even the ambiguous U-shaped Chinese “boundary” marked on that country’s maps. One reading is that this marks a major escalation in China’s efforts to attain control in the South China Sea. The EP-3 and Impeccable incidents took place just 70 nautical miles from Hainan. The 2001 Bowditch incident was in the Yellow Sea, within a couple of hundred miles of the Chinese coast. The drone seizure, by contrast, was well beyond any previously claimed “Chinese waters.”

However, it’s unlikely that Beijing has suddenly decided to expand its already expansive claims in the South China Sea to include an area just 57 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines. It seems more likely that, after Trump’s comments, the crew of the Nan-Jiu 510 was given the green light to seize the drone at the first available opportunity. It was just coincidence that the opportunity only arose so far from China. The Trump team took its first step on the ladder of escalation with the arrangement of the Taiwan call on Dec. 2. Trump added a second step a little more than a week later with his comments to Fox News that the United States was under no obligation to follow the One-China policy. Now China is showing that it, too, can escalate and that it’s willing, for the sake of its prestige and sovereignty, to bear a significant price in terms of naval cooperation with the United States or regional criticism.

Where does the ladder lead to from here? Trump’s interview comments suggest that at least some members of his team are looking for an agreement on a new status quo with China covering all these issues. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” he told Fox News Sunday. Trump mentioned other issues he and his team see with China, including devaluation, heavy border taxes, Beijing’s massive fortress-building in the South China Sea, and the problem of North Korea.

Trump advisor and former CIA Director James Woolsey has suggested “a grand bargain in which the U.S. accepts China’s political and social structure and commits not to disrupt it in any way in exchange for China’s commitment not to challenge the status quo in Asia.” The question to which the region is now seeking answers is how much disruption to China’s political and social structure will Trump be willing to inflict in order to reach the new status quo? Or, to put it another way, how much damage to U.S. and regional interests will he be prepared to absorb in order to reach that position?

Amid all of these questions, the actual fate of the drone remains, at present, a mystery. Does it remain on the Nan-Jiu 510, or has it been offloaded at one of China’s new artificial islands in the Spratlys? Are Chinese technologists currently probing its secrets? The Chinese Ministry of Defense has promised to return it but didn’t specify how many pieces it will be returned in. Trump threw everyone off balance recently by tweeting, “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!” Perhaps he has considered the likelihood that China may want some concessions in return. For the Trump camp, sticking to its assertive line seems more important than the loss of the drone.

However it ends, this year’s Bowditch incident will be seen as a fitting epitaph for Obama’s strategy toward China, which has stressed cooperation on global challenges and the avoidance of conflict. A successful outcome, in which the drone is returned and a crisis averted, will be hailed as a vindication. Southeast Asian states, which regard a U.S.-China conflict in their neighborhood as the worst possible outcome, will be hugely grateful.

However, a large group of critics, well beyond the incoming Trump administration, believe that President Obama’s aversion to risk has only emboldened Beijing in the South China Sea. Trump advisors Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro have written in Foreign Policy of their “peace through strength” approach to China. They are ready to bury the Obama strategy. We are about to see what an administration with a greater predilection for risk will unleash in East and Southeast Asia.

Photo credit: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

Bill Hayton is an associate fellow at Chatham House.

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