On Friday morning, Reuters reported that China had taken a U.S. military drone in the South China Sea, near the Philippines.
On Friday afternoon, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that the move was “unpresidented.” The Twitterati immediately seized on the spelling mistake, which took him (or his team) 87 minutes to correct.
But the issue here is not the fact that the president-elect has poor spelling.
On Saturday morning, China’s Ministry of Defense said that it was bringing the drone back, denying that it had done anything unusual, and — importantly — criticizing the United States for “hyping” the event.
“China decided to return it to the U.S. side in an appropriate manner, and China and the U.S. have all along been in communication about it,” the ministry said on its website, Reuters reported. “During this process, the U.S. side’s unilateral and open hyping up is inappropriate, and is not beneficial to the smooth resolution of this issue. We express regret at this.”
There are certainly issues with some of China’s policies and actions. As the Diplomat wrote Saturday, “the glider-seizure was illegal by any measure of international law.” And the country has been incrementally encroaching on the South China Sea for years.
But Trump’s reaction — part of a series of acts that, together, create a foreign policy narrative — is hostile to China and destabilizing to foreign relations.
Trump has been criticized for taking a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan — a state the Chinese government considers part of its territory, under what is knows as the “One China” principle. During his presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly accused China of currency manipulation. He also has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. (A claim the Chinese government has ridiculed.) In fact, he talks a lot about China.
And as president, Trump is going to have to face serious questions about China’s growing claims to territory in the South China Sea. But he has already reportedly refused to receive intelligence briefings, which might help inform sensitive foreign policy decisions.
While curbing China’s encroachment in the South China Sea — and improving the Taiwanese situation — could be reasonable policy positions, tweeting angrily might not the best way to negotiate sensitive disagreements between major world powerhouses. The drone incident, for instance, “could easily become a major crisis and set the tone for U.S.-China confrontation in the early days of the Trump administration,” the Diplomat’s Anit Panka writes.
If Trump is attempting to be a hard-liner against China, he’s going in the right direction. Whether that hard line will result in military engagement or China backing down from South China waters remains to be seen.