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In China's Drone Seizure And Return, A Strategic Message To U.S.

The USNS Bowditch, shown here in open waters, was in the South China Sea to pick up two underwater drones when one of the drones was confiscated by China.
CHINFO, Navy Visual News via AP
The USNS Bowditch, shown here in open waters, was in the South China Sea to pick up two underwater drones when one of the drones was confiscated by China.

By returning a U.S. Navy underwater drone Tuesday that it had fished from the South China Sea last week, China appears to have laid the controversial naval encounter to rest. But the incident seems calculated to send a message to the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump about China's strategic plans in the region.

The underwater, unmanned vehicle in question, a Slocum G2 Glider, is a 5-foot-long metal tube with fins. A U.S. naval ship, the USNS Bowditch, was in the South China Sea to pick up this and another underwater drone when the incident occurred.

The U.S. filed a diplomatic protest, arguing that China's seizure of the glider was illegal, and that civilian contractors were using the vehicle simply to collect scientific data in international waters. The Pentagon asked for China to return the drone. But President-elect Trump tweeted, "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back. [L]et them keep it!"

China, meanwhile, alleges that the drone was part of decades of U.S. efforts to collect military intelligence on what Beijing considers China's doorstep, and says that has to stop.

Yue Gang, a retired Chinese army colonel, alleges that the Bowditch is basically a spy ship that China has chased off before. He adds that the incident was also meant to send another message.

"We were hitting back, militarily but indirectly, at President-elect Trump's messing with the 'One China' principle," he says.

The One China policy allows the U.S. to maintain unofficial relations with Taiwan by acknowledging that the island is not an independent nation. Donald Trump challenged that policy earlier this month when he spoke by phone with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen. No U.S. president or president-elect had spoken with a Taiwanese leader since 1979, when U.S.-Chinese relations were established.

Yue says that Beijing was careful not to let the South China Sea incident escalate.

"I hope that the U.S. side can read and understand China's good intentions," he says, "and see that China wants cooperation to be the mainstream of our relations."

But other analysts also see less benign intentions.

"Driving this at the strategic level is China's increased interest in the South China Sea as a patrol area for its ballistic missile submarines and all of the conventional defenses that are associated with that," says Euan Graham, an expert on Asian security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.

He says that incidents such as seizing a drone or building up a coral reef — China has erected military outposts on South China Sea reefs — may not individually cause the U.S. much pain.

"But if it's a death of a thousand cuts, to a point where the U.S. can no longer operate freely, then that will mean the U.S. forward presence in Asia is fundamentally challenged at a strategic level," he says.

Graham says he's not saying that the U.S. has lost the South China Sea or its military advantage to China yet.

But, he cautions, "The old days of being able to sail through the South China Sea risk-free have gone. Now, every U.S. vessel more or less attracts a Chinese shadow."

Graham notes that China suffered a major setback in July, when an international panel in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has ignored the ruling.

Since then, Graham says, things have gone better for China. The Philippines' new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has distanced himself from traditional ally Washington and drawn closer to Beijing.

And the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, the region's main political organization, has shown itself to be too divided to push back very hard against China on the South China Sea issue.

Yue, the retired Chinese colonel, says that in the next five to 10 years, China is likely to build up and fortify other features in the South China Sea, such as the strategically situated Scarborough Shoal, near the Philippines.

He says it is also likely to declare an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea to keep out potentially hostile aircraft.

And, Yue says, China intends to put an end to what it considers U.S. military provocations in the South China Sea, such as naval "freedom of navigation" operations, which the U.S. says are to keep vital sea lanes open.

"The U.S. uses the pretense of freedom of overflight and navigation," Yue argues. "But what it's really saying is, 'I'm still the top dog; I maintain the order around here,' so as to hold onto its domination of the seas."

He describes this month's drone incident as sort of a body check, which is unlikely to trigger a full-on brawl between the U.S. and China — especially during the transition to a new administration.

But Trump has signaled that he may be more confrontational toward China than his predecessors. And he may be more unconventional, too — for example, by using security issues as leverage against China's trade policies. Or perhaps the reverse.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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