Last week, U.S.-China relations took a series of strange turns, the most alarming of which saw China’s seizure of a U.S. naval underwater drone. After a strained and tense period, Chinese officials ultimately returned the drone on Monday night, asserting that the entire incident had been unimportant and overly dramatized by Washington.
While the United States does have a history of reading aggression in Chinese movements, the incident was an alarming one — especially given its timing.
On Thursday, December 15, China seized the drone, later claiming that it was a safety hazard. While the drone itself was relatively cheap and low-grade by military standards, the move was still considered hostile. The Pentagon argued that the drone was in international waters at the time of its capture, and the United States was quick to react, demanding the drone’s return. After some back and forth, including a response from President-elect Donald Trump on Twitter, the drone was handed back into U.S. custody.
We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2016
The seizure of an unmanned American drone in international waters was an unprecedented move that thwarted diplomatic norms, but it was hardly the worst possible scenario two nuclear-armed superpowers could find themselves in. Relations between the United States and China have always been a delicate subject, but the election of Trump has thrown traditional diplomacy between the two superpowers into disarray, alarming policymakers and setting scholars on edge.
Trump has never made any secret of his disdain for China, making the nation a frequent talking point during his time on the campaign trail, and taking to his Twitter account more than once to lob insults and taunts at the nation, which remains the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.
Did 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..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 4, 2016
their country (the U.S. doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 4, 2016
Chinese reactions to Trump’s election were mixed at first, something that quickly solidified into opposition following his acceptance of a congratulatory call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a serious break with established protocol. After the call, Trump gave an interview indicating that traditional U.S. attitudes towards China and Taiwan might be on the verge of a shift, especially if Beijing failed to comply with U.S. demands.
“I don’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,” Trump said in a Sunday interview with Fox News, referencing the agreement affirming that the United States does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country, something the mainland Chinese government insists upon.
Trump’s comments ignited a firestorm. The One China policy establishes that countries seeking diplomatic relations with China must sever ties with Taiwan, and vice versa. It is a decades-old agreement reached by Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in 1972, when ties between the United States and China were re-established. Adhering to the policy has, arguably, allowed for the endurance of relations between both superpowers, and is seen by many as necessary to ensuring diplomatic ties, even as it has isolated Taiwan from much of the global diplomatic community. (Notably, the United States still has an active relationship with Taiwan; however, those ties are unofficial.)
Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials and media took Trump to task over his comments. The Chinese government issued a stern warning to the president-elect, threatening a shift in ties if his rhetoric continued. Less willing to mince words was the Chinese state-run publication Global Times, which wrote that the incident caused Trump to come off “as ignorant as a child in terms of foreign policy.” The same publication later ran an article accusing Trump of being unable to run a superpower.
As to the enduring fallout from Trump’s call, we may be seeing the results now. While Tsai herself acknowledged that she did not foresee any major changes in how the United States deals with Taiwan due to the need for continued regional stability, last weekend’s drone debacle spoke to the shift that may be coming in Chinese-American relations.
That shift has some incredibly ominous implications. While it is unclear just how serious Beijing is about sending the future president a message, it definitely should not escape anyone how alarming a shift in U.S.-China ties could be. China wields a tremendous amount of global power. As Jane Perlez of the New York Times observed, there are numerous ways in which China could make life incredibly different for the United States — via investment and trade, with battling climate change, and, of course, through diplomatic relations with numerous countries, including but not limited to Iran and North Korea.
Another item not addressed by the list is one the drone incident should drive home. The South China Sea has been a hot source of regional debate in recent years, and while the United States has refrained from taking a stance on the issue, the United States clearly stands to gain little from Chinese supremacy in the area. Of course, other developments have made U.S. influence in the region precarious. Following the election of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines, a major U.S. ally, has shown increasing signs of a pivot to China, something that could completely alter a U.S. presence in the contested area.
Duterte himself has also extended a hand to Trump, so it remains to be seen just where his country will concentrate its efforts. It is also difficult to say if Trump’s current aggression towards China will continue into the White House following his inauguration. Trump’s choice of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who is popular with the Chinese government, for ambassador to China was seen by some as a reconciliatory gesture, one that could well hint at a much friendlier rapport than Trump has otherwise indicated.