ANALYSIS: Drone Seizure Latest Sign of Tougher Times Between U.S., China

The USNS Bowditch, a civilian U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship – seen here in an undated photo – was recovering two drones on Thursday when a Chinese navy ship approached and sent out a small boat that took one of the drones. (CHINFO, Navy Visual News via AP)

China’s seizure of an American underwater drone is the latest sign that the Pacific Ocean’s dominant power and its rising Asian challenger are headed for more confrontation once President-elect Donald Trump takes office, analysts said Monday.

Chinese political experts said China seized the glider in the South China Sea last week to send a strong warning to Trump not to test Beijing’s resolve over the sensitive issue of Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing considers part of its territory. Meanwhile, smaller countries in Southeast Asia are watching the back-and-forth closely for signs that U.S. naval dominance might be diminishing, others said.

Trump’s Dec. 2 phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was the first time an American president or president-elect has publicly spoken to Taiwan’s leader since Washington broke off its formal diplomatic relationship in 1979 at China’s behest. Trump later said he did not feel “bound by a one-China policy” unless the U.S. could gain trade or other benefits from China. Beijing regards any acknowledgement that Taiwan has its own head of state as a grave insult.

The drone seizure “is a kind of response from China to Trump’s recent provocations on the issue,” said Ni Lexiong, a military expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “It can be regarded as a warning to countries such as the U.S. and Japan on their attempts to challenge China’s core interests.”

The Pentagon said a Chinese ship seized the U.S. drone Thursday afternoon in an area about 57 miles northwest of Subic Bay near the Philippines. Several U.S. analysts say the seizure occurred inside the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, which would appear to violate international law.

China’s defense ministry said its navy seized the underwater glider to ensure the safety of passing ships and that it would turn over the device using unspecified “appropriate means.” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Monday reiterated the Defense Ministry’s objections to what he called U.S. “reconnaissance and surveys in Chinese waters.”

State media have continued to pointedly attack Trump, with the Communist Party-controlled Global Times publishing an editorial Monday headlined, “‘Unpresidented’ Trump adds fuel to fire.”

“He seemed emotionally upset, but no one knows what he wanted to say,” the editorial said. “Trump is not behaving as a president who will become master of the White House in a month. He bears no sense of how to lead a superpower.”

Trump had tweeted Saturday that despite China’s assurances that it would return the drone, the U.S. should “let them keep it!” Earlier in the day, he wrote: “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act.”

Editorials and tweets aside, Trump as president will confront  an increasingly assertive China that wants to extend its reach in the South China Sea, a strategically vital area through which about $5 trillion in global trade passes each year. Several of China’s smaller neighbors have protested China’s territorial claims there and are closely watching Trump’s handling of the disputed sea.

“These are small countries that realize that the best way to survive and prosper is not to side with any of the great powers,” said Richard Heydarian, an analyst and consultant in the Philippines.

“They’re all bracing not only for unpredictability, but also for stormy waters involving U.S. and China primarily,” he said.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its own with a roughly drawn border known as the “nine-dash line” running along western Philippine islands. Even as an international tribunal in June largely rejected China’s expansive claims, the Chinese military continues to run naval patrols and training flights over disputed islands in the area as well as the adjoining East China Sea.

Collin Koh, a research fellow on naval affairs at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the drone incident was “not something that will be taken lightly by the international community.” America’s naval dominance was “slowly being undermined by China,” Koh said, citing the growth in China’s naval technology and its moves in disputed waters.

“This is a symptom of a great power rivalry,” he said.

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