Was China, US navy drone incident over Donald Trump’s Taiwan phone call?

20-Dec-2016 Intellasia | AP | 6:00 AM Print This Post

BEIJING and Washington are facing the biggest test of their relationship in years following China’s controversial seizure of a US navy drone.

But whether China’s move was intentional or simply opportunistic, one thing remains certain: the unprecedented seizure was a “brazen act”.

Ashley Townshend, research fellow at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, said it was still too early to say whether the move was in direct response to Donald Trump’s Taiwan remarks.

“Beijing has so far provided no explanation for its actions and has not drawn any connection between the two issues – so we shouldn’t rush to ascribe significance that may not be there,” Townshend told news.com.au.

“Seizing an unclassified drone in the South China Sea would appear to be a pretty oblique way to respond to Trump’s comments about the One China policy, especially without any accompanying signals.”

The Chinese navy on Thursday seized the drone, which the Pentagon said was being operated by civilian contractors to conduct oceanic research.

The US lodged a formal diplomatic complaint, calling the incident an “unlawful seizure” in international waters and demanded the drone back.

China insisted the glider was seized because it wanted to ensure the safe navigation of passing ships and vowed to return it.

The incident comes more than two weeks after US President-elect Trump took a call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

The controversial call saw Trump become the first President or President-elect to do so in decades in a major break from US policy.

While some questioned the move and Beijing said it signalled his “inexperience” with foreign policy, Trump remained defiant, implying he didn’t need China’s permission to talk to anyone.

While China was measured in its response over the call, many speculated it would increase tensions between the superpowers.

Townshend said it was true and fair to say that China’s behaviour in the South China Sea is generally not random.

“Chinese naval and coastguard vessels operate within the bounds of guidelines that are centrally dictated by officials in Beijing,” he said.

“Any changes to established patterns of maritime behaviour, like Thursday’s drone incident, would normally need to be pre-approved – particularly if the new actions are likely to be provocative.”

However he insisted this didn’t mean all actions are deliberate and this latest provocation could have been the result of unsanctioned behaviour by overly assertive ship operators or local military.

He said it could have been a failed attempt to obtain sensitive US drone technology since the drone wasn’t classified or even a response to Admiral Harry Harris’ South China Sea speech in Sydney last week.

It could have also been a probe to test America’s resolve during the presidential transition or the start of a new phase in disruptive grey-zone activity.

Townshend said the seizure of the drone appeared to be in contrast to Beijing’s otherwise very cautious maritime behaviour in the South China Sea.

“During the past two years, Beijing has deliberately avoided dangerous or provocative tactical behaviour in order to minimise the risk of a US-China maritime crisis while it constructs a network of military outposts throughout the South China Sea,” he said.

“Although the drone was not conducting a military operation, disrupting and then stealing the naval platform – which has sovereign immune status – is one of the most brazen actions that the PLA Navy has taken against US Navy for a very long time.

“Against a background of rising tensions in the South China Sea and Trump’s increasingly hawkish comments on China policy, this incident will be a serious test for US-China relations.”

Hours after China agreed to return the unmanned underwater glider, Trump appeared to raise tensions once again, saying the US should just let Beijing keep it.

The incident appeared to be peacefully resolved, with some speculating that Trump’s tweet would only further inflame tensions over the incident.

The drone was seized while collecting unclassified scientific data about 92 kilometres northwest of Subic Bay near the Philippines in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety, Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

Captain Davis said it belonged to the US and no one wanted to see this happen again.

He said the drone costs about $150,000 and is largely commercial, off-the-shelf technology.

According to the Pentagon, as the Chinese ship left with the drone, which is about three metres long, its only radio response to the US vessel was: “We are returning to normal operations.”



Category: China

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