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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

What should the U.S. government do to respond to China’s vexing drone snatch?

China’s seizure and then return of a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle in the South China Sea poses several challenges for U.S. policymakers and outside observers.



By Graham Webster


By Graham Webster
Best Defense guest columnist

China’s seizure and then return of a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle, or “glider,” in the South China Sea poses several challenges for U.S. policymakers and outside observers. The U.S. government must interpret the ambiguous signals the drone-snatching has sent. It must develop its own responses to send signals that reinforce important U.S. interests and willingness to pursue them. And it must reckon with a fundamental change in U.S.-China interactions after President-elect Donald Trump’s actions regarding Taiwan.

Asia watchers have debated whether the glider seizure represented a calculated move designed to push U.S. buttons, the opportunistic behavior of an overzealous low-level commander, or something in between. But real clarity cannot be had on this question, just as no one can know for sure how the Trump government intends to act regarding China. These events represent an important volley in the exchange of signals between China and the incoming administration, whether or not either side intended it as such.

The reality that there is only one U.S. president at a time does not stop China’s government from probing the incoming leader, gauging reactions, and signaling resolve on key questions. That comes in the context of Trump’s own prodding of China’s government on the “one China” policy through his conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The question of whether the glider seizure was intentionally calculated neatly parallels the question of how much Trump knew about the significance of speaking with a top Taiwanese leader when he got on the phone. Both actions irritated the other side yet left future posture in question.

In the present context, President Barack Obama and his administration had the responsibility to handle the immediate dilemma even as they could not control perhaps the most relevant U.S. actor in the public story of the event. The Obama administration and the U.S. military appear to have taken a non-escalatory approach (though China’s Defense Ministry did complain that the Pentagon made the incident public). From publicly available information, this appears to have been the right approach for the moment. U.S. displeasure was clear, the glider was returned relatively quickly, and the risk of military clash was minimal.

Other potential Obama responses to the seizure would have carried significant risks for U.S. interests. One alternative would have been to swiftly signal that the Chinese action crossed a U.S. redline by confronting the Chinese military with a show of force either at the scene of the incident or elsewhere with clear signaling about the linkage. This would have risked escalation and all but guaranteed that the new president, inexperienced in national security affairs, would enter office amidst a heightened level of U.S.-China military tension — a risky outcome in the context of a Chinese action that by its very nature did not in total clarity violate the declared U.S. interest in “freedom of navigation.”

Another alternative would have been to approach Chinese counterparts quietly, seeking a swift but quiet resolution and keeping the trouble out of the headlines. This would have risked under-playing the emphasis the U.S. military puts and will likely continue to put on freedom of navigation. While immediate risk would be low, U.S. deterrence would be undermined.

Moving forward, the Obama administration in its last days should maintain a de-escalatory posture, thereby displaying the stabilizing benefits of the hard work done to prevent accidental escalation between navies during Obama’s term.

The real challenge for U.S. policy following this event will be for the Trump administration. If Trump and his team wish to show greater U.S. “resolve,” they must communicate what the United States supposedly has resolve to accomplish, and at what cost. In order to achieve deterrence, strategists will have to be more clear about what actions they wish to deter. The Obama administration has not demonstrated resolve to stop all island construction and weapons installations in the Spratly Islands. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the seizure of a research sensor did not rank a disproportionate retaliation. If deterrence is working, the red lines that would trigger a costly U.S. response are beyond China’s activities to date. For instance, many believe the Obama administration privately drew a red line at land reclamation on the disputed Scarborough Shoal, where China has in fact not built an outpost.

The Trump administration will have a special challenge in sending credible signals. The president-elect’s erratic and self-contradictory public statements on a great number of matters do not go unnoticed in Beijing or among regional U.S. allies. The new administration will have to develop policy, make statements in public or private, and develop a track record of following up on the most crucial statements. Such a task will be much easier to accomplish if Trump displays greater communication discipline starting immediately. While uncertainty can have its benefits in a negotiation, in national security matters it can invite risky probing by other actors — the likes of which we might have just seen with the glider incident.

Most fundamentally, however, the Trump team should not view China’s seizure of a glider as an unprovoked act of aggression, but instead in the context of Trump’s provocative behavior with regard to Taiwan and longstanding U.S.-China differences over the South China Sea.

Graham Webster (@gwbstr) is a lecturer and senior fellow for U.S.-China relations of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. Sign up for his U.S.–China Week newsletter at

Photo credit: SANTIAGO CARRIZOSA/U.S. Navy

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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