China: An Elevated Warning to the US

Published on December 16, 2016

Reports today that a Chinese warship seized a US underwater drone should be taken as a deliberate and elevated, though still “measured,” response by the Chinese government to what it sees as US President-elect Donald Trump’s continued provocative remarks about Taiwan, and US-China policy.

*** It is our understanding the seizure of the drone is in direct response to President-elect Trump’s recent questioning of the US recognition of the “One China” policy — considered by Beijing to be the bedrock to its relations with the US over the last four decades – in effect doubling down and on the heels of what was already seen to be a very provocative call between Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. ***

*** That the seizure was of an unclassified, unmanned, and civilian drone, rather than one involving actual personnel, and came when President Obama is still in office, rather than after President-elect Trump is inaugurated, a potentially more volatile period, will give the outgoing, lame-duck administration room to spin and downplay its public assessment of an action that was in fact quite bellicose, conducted plainly in sight of US ships. ***

But we would note that as we wrote earlier this month, after President-elect Trump took a congratulatory call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed off on a series of calibrated policy responses that could escalate into more confrontational military steps or a break in diplomatic relations, depending on the incoming Trump Administration’s actions (see SGH 12/6/16, “China: Beijing’s Response to Trump’s Taiwan Call”).

Planned Responses to Trump “Provocations”

Beijing’s formal public response to the “congratulatory call” last month was deliberately and relatively mild, with the call being dismissed in part as due to Trump’s “inexperience.” But instead of stepping back from the call, the Chinese saw President-elect Trump’s further questioning of the “one China” policy as a ratcheting up in tensions, requiring a proportional escalation and response from China.

Earlier today, an unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV, was seized by a PLA Navy warship in international waters not far from the US Naval Base at Subic Bay, the Philippines, just before the underwater drone was about to be retrieved by the USS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship. The Bowditch and the underwater drones are operated by an all civilian crew on contract with the US Navy to collect oceanographic data that is used to improve US military sonar capabilities for tracking underwater submarine movements.

The incident mirrors, on a smaller scale, the early months of the George W. Bush Administration, when a US spy plane was seized by the Chinese after being forced to land by Chinese fighter aircraft at a Chinese air base in Hainan. The plane and its crew were subsequently released a few days later, but only after a flurry of diplomatic calls, including one directly between President Bush and then Chinese President, Jiang Zemin.

Beijing Watching Trump’s Early Steps

In our December 6 note, we reported that Beijing intended to send a “black and white” message to the White House that “any effort to establish formal relations with Taiwan” would mean a cessation of relations with Beijing.

Furthermore, increasingly concerned that the incoming Trump Administration may challenge China’s “core interests” in Taiwan and the South and East China Seas, we wrote Beijing had given Chinese warships the go-ahead to “bump” any US warships “frequently” sailing within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. In recent months, China also looks to have installed anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on those islands in addition to the military-grade airfields.

And we warned Beijing will be watching closely for early signs of changes in US-China policy, starting with whether the Trump White House invites Taiwanese officials to the President-elect’s inaugural ceremony, and how it handles Tsai Ing-wen’s stop-over in the United States on her way to meetings in mid-January with a handful of central American countries that have bucked the global trend and still maintain high level relations with Taiwan.

If mishandled, China has threatened it will suspend diplomatic relations with the US.

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