China’s seizure of an American Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) northwest of Subic Bay on 15 December is being called the most serious bilateral incident since the EP-3 collision of April 2001. China has since agreed to return the UUV. Some, apparently, see this is as small consolation, with President-elect Trump tweeting, “let them keep it!”
Chinese sources have attempted to explain the seizure with reference to maritime safety or protests over U.S. military reconnaissance in and around Chinese waters. The first explanation holds no water—by all accounts, the UUV posed no threat to any passing vessel. The second explanation also has difficulties. The location of the seizure was apparently outside of China’s Nine-Dashed Line.
A more likely explanation for China’s precipitous action has been suggested by American analyst Bonnie Glaser: China seized the drone to send a signal to President-elect Donald Trump that China wasn’t going to play around with any threats to the One China policy, which Trump threatened by calling Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. The message, according to this theory, went something like this: “China can cause problems for the U.S., it can grab global headlines, and it can embarrass you, Mr. Trump. Is that what you would like?” On the latter count, Trump certainly did not help matters when he declared on Twitter China’s action to be “unpresidented [sic].” That certainly didn’t sound particularly presidential.
Even so, provoking Trump early on is not a smart strategy. Right now, a small group of transition advisors seem to be guiding Trump’s views on China. These include Michael Pillsbury (whose conspiratorial view of China I have explored elsewhere on China-US Focus), Peter Navarro (who has previously called for abolishing the One China Policy), and John Bolton (who is still-in-the-running for a top State Department position, and who has advocated using the One China principle as a bargaining chip to exact concessions from China). Since Trump doesn’t actually have any responsibility yet, he can let emotions govern his response to events, shooting off angry tweets to Chinese actions he disagrees with, even as his small circle of hawkish advisors craft schemes to disrupt the status quo, like his call to the Taiwanese president, something actually “unprecedented.”
The hair-trigger emotional responses, the feel of responsibility without actual authority, and the small clique of hawkish advisors may all change in the coming months, as Rex Tillerson takes the helm of the State Department, Governor Terry Branstad coordinates policy in Beijing, and Trump’s national security team focuses on the issues it cares about, which seem to be Iran (on which the Trump-team is hawkish) and Russia (on which it is dovish). With time, bureaucratic socialization can also foster the President’s reversion to the mean. Responsible members of the CIA and the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff will (presumably) publish hefty memos articulating the dangers of threatening the One China Principle, and the allure of making high-profile economic deals with China will pull the President’s attention in other directions. Parts of the hawkish clique will have been disbanded, and now its advice will be countered by the Government’s more restrained bureaucrats. The need for cooperation with China to deal successfully with Iran and other global issues, finally, will become clear to the President.
Of course, things might not happen this way. Trump might continue his role as off-the-cuff Twitter commentator, just one with actual power, befuddling China as he says one thing and lower-level advisors rollback his declarations. He might continue pressing the “madman” strategy, a reference to Thomas Schelling’s theory of bargaining in which the most reckless driver can better secure his objectives (by forcing others off the road). And—if figures like Bolton still have his ear—he might actually seek to upend the policies, like the One China Principle, that have facilitated peaceful U.S.-China relations since Nixon’s presidency. This would be the time for China to sternly push back, demonstrating national recklessness equal to Trump’s own. Here, China’s best move would be to punish Taiwan (by, for example, restricting tourism to the island), an economy largely dependent on China’s. Suddenly, Taiwanese officials wouldn’t be looking to score some extra points in a phone call with the U.S. President-elect, but to restore the economic health of their nation. Taiwan could end up begging President Trump to use some other nation for his “madman strategy.”
China’s economic and global clout gives it the influence it needs to preserve its “core” interests in international society. There is no need for abrupt action right now that alienates president-elect Trump and his advisors. Obviously China wants to signal that Taiwan is a “core” issue, and this is understandable. But China’s true power doesn’t derive from its ability to pull a U.S. UUV out of the water; it comes from its regional and global economic influence. It would be a mistake for China to rouse President-elect Trump to resentment towards China until he has clearly charted his China policy, something that will conceivably take a year or two. China should give Trump time, and that means it should pursue a restrained policy, ignoring the rhetorical flourishes of the President-elect.
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Ramses Amer Associated Fellow, Institute for Security & Development Policy, Sweden