The Pentagon announced Saturday that Chinese officials had agreed to give the United States back a Navy drone the country seized in the South China Sea last week.
“We have registered our objection to China’s unlawful seizure, of a U.S. unmanned-underwater vehicle,” said spokesman Peter Cook. “Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV to the United States.”
As many in the media have noted, China likes to play these games every time a new American president is elected. They did it a couple of months into George W. Bush’s first term and they did it again during Obama’s first 100 days. If there is anything unusual about this latest move, it’s that Donald Trump has yet to take the Oath of Office. They are testing Trump before he’s even sitting in the West Wing. Whether this means they are getting more aggressive or that they want to send a “safe” message (i.e., one that the president-elect cannot respond to with any actual authority), we can only speculate.
What seems certain, however, is that the drone theft was related to Trump’s decision to take a call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen last month. Chinese authorities have bashed Trump for recognizing Taiwan’s independence – even in a tacit, unofficial way – and have lectured the incoming president about responsible foreign policy for the last two weeks.
For his part, Trump has only doubled-down, asking repeatedly why the United States needed to be held hostage by a Chinese policy, especially if the communist PROC refuses to cooperate on North Korea and continues to play monetary games that hurt America’s financial interests.
On Saturday night, Trump tweeted, “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”
It’s not yet clear what Trump meant by this. Surely it is not in America’s interests to let such a theft go unanswered, much less simply allow China to steal a piece of research equipment worth more than $200,000. Trump knows that as well as anyone, so we can only guess about his motivations here. He doesn’t want to let the Chinese get one over on us, of course, but it will be interesting in the coming days to see if there is hidden depth to this odd message.
In the meantime, it’s clear that Chinese-American relations are about to change. How much and in what way? Only time – and Trump – will tell.