S P Seth
The US-China relations are entering a dangerous phase. So far, it has been a case of controlled management with probing signals from both sides of testing boundaries. The latest was the case of an underwater US drone operated by a US naval vessel carrying research in international waters of the South China Sea, much of which China claims as its own. This is where China has claimed almost all of the contested islands and has dredged new ones with military facilities and structures. The US is challenging Beijingâ€™s control with its naval ships seeking to exercise freedom of navigation through international waters. Apparently, the drone in question was not on any dangerous mission, said to be involved in scientific research. China seized the drone, and the US demanded its return. A Pentagon spokesman stated that â€œIt [the drone] is ours, and it is clearly marked as ours, and we would like it back. And we would like this not to happen again.â€ Which China agreed to do, putting its own spin on it. A statement from Chinaâ€™s defence ministry sought to make their action in seizing the drone â€” a piece of â€œunidentified equipment,â€ as they called it â€” as a matter of checking it for navigational safety. It said, â€œChina decided to return it to the US in an appropriate manner, and China and the US have all along been in communication about it.â€ But, â€œDuring this process, the US sideâ€™s unilateral and open hyping up is inappropriate, and is not beneficial to the smooth resolution of the issue.â€ And then there is the significant rider that China was â€œresolutely opposedâ€ to the long-standing surveillance â€œin the presence ofâ€ Chinese waters by US ships and aircraft. In other words, the drone was operating in Chinese waters by US naval vessels and next time China might not be as sanguine. It is reported in some western media that though the US drone and surveillance program is unclassified, the US relied increasingly on the oceanographic data supplied by such drones to help track Chinaâ€™s growing and increasingly sophisticated fleet of submarines. In other words, next time around it might create some incident. And next time around, it will be the Trump administration dealing with the situation. And if President-elect Trumpâ€™s response to the incident is any guide from his Twitter reaction, it will be much more colourful. Trump said in his tweet, â€œChina steals United States Navy research drone in international waters â€” rips it out of the water and takes it to China in an unprecedented act,â€ and Trump didnâ€™t seem keen on getting it back. Beijingâ€™s reaction to this is not spelt out. They are probably waiting to see him take over as President before they come to any definite conclusion, although they did react, though in a measured and diplomatic way initially, to the telephone conversation he had with Taiwanâ€™s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, congratulating him on his election victory. This seemed to overturn the One China principle that has been the foundation of US-China diplomatic normalisation since the seventies. The two countries established formal diplomatic relations in 1979. Beijing lodged â€œstern representations,â€ urging the US to adhere to the One China principle and â€œprudentlyâ€ handle affairs in connection with Taiwan, which China regards as its breakaway province. Indeed, initially, they even tried to blame it on Ms Tsai, with Chinaâ€™s foreign minister suggesting the call was the result of Taiwanâ€™s â€œpetty tricks.â€ When Trump was criticised both at home and in China over the phone conversation, he characteristically reacted sharply, first to his internal critics and then to China. He said that the initiative for the call came from Taiwanâ€™s leader as a courtesy call. And questioned the double standards of his domestic critics, asking why decades of US military arms sales to Taiwan had not attracted such scrutiny? As for Chinaâ€™s representation, he responded with more tweets, saying he wouldnâ€™t be told by Beijing who he should and should not talk to, pointing out: â€œDid China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I donâ€™t think so.â€ And this was followed by an interview on the US Fox News questioning the rationale of the USâ€™ Taiwan policy. Trump said, â€œI donâ€™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.â€ And he added, â€œWeâ€™re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we donâ€™t tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldnâ€™t be doing;and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea.â€This is the Trump who wants to run US-China relations, or any other foreign policy issue, as transactions/deals with give and take to maximise US gains.And as he sees it, in US-China relations the US is giving away about everything but not getting anything in return. Therefore, if he means what he says, the USâ€™ China policy would appear to be in a for a major overhaul, including Chinaâ€™s â€˜coreâ€™ issue of regarding Taiwan as a breakaway province of China as the sole sovereign nation. By raising all these matters, Trump is seeking to create substantial leverage â€” and Taiwan is a big one â€” to refashion relations with China.Was it an impulsive/irrational response in putting the Taiwan issue once again in the limelight by his telephone conversation with the Taiwanese leader, Tsai Ing-won? According to some accounts, it was calculated and well thought. It has put China off guard. They had thought, according to some accounts emanating from China, that the incoming Trump presidency would be too preoccupied with the countryâ€™s parlous domestic situation, hopefully giving China even more political space to strengthen its international stature, particularly in the South China Sea, and with regional countries. But now China might have to go back to the drawing board to figure out the contours of a new US policy. And that policy might become more pro-active than reactive, with his close advisers on foreign and defence affairs sharing Trumpâ€™s slogan of â€œMaking America Great Again.â€ Will China do some retreating? Going by the thrust of Chinaâ€™s policy so far of standing for its â€˜core interestsâ€™ in Taiwan and the South China Sea, Beijing is unlikely to retreat, and we might be in for some stormy times ahead.