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“China steals United States Navy re­search drone in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters – rips it out of wa­ter and takes it to China in un­pres­i­dented act,” Don­ald Trump tweeted on Satur­day.

The post went vi­ral thanks mostly to the ob­vi­ous mis­spelling. But what is truly amaz­ing about this tweet, was the soon-to-be US pres­i­dent com­pletely mis­rep­re­sented what had ac­tu­ally hap­pened — that is more dan­ger­ous than funny.

To set the record straight, the Chi­nese De­fense Min­istry gave an out­line of the in­ci­dent:

A Chi­nese naval ves­sel dis­cov­ered an “un­known de­vice” in the wa­ters where it was sail­ing and “con­ducted in­ves­ti­ga­tion and ver­i­fi­ca­tion” to “pre­vent it from en­dan­ger­ing the safety of pass­ing ships and per­son­nel”. Af­ter iden­ti­fy­ing the un­der­wa­ter drone as a US as­set, they “de­cided to re­turn it” “in an ap­pro­pri­ate man­ner”. The two sides have been “in com­mu­ni­ca­tion all along”. The Pen­tagon knows full well its de­vice was not “stolen”. The gov­ern­ments in both Bei­jing and Wash­ing­ton have treated cau­tiously be­cause, un­like the yet-to-be US pres­i­dent, they know the sen­si­tiv­ity of mat­ters con­cern­ing the South China Sea, which in­volve con­vo­luted strate­gic di­ver­gences.

Nei­ther gave pre­cise ge­o­graph­i­cal co­or­di­nates for the in­ci­dent, in keep­ing with the two coun­tries long dis­agree­ment over the ju­rispru­den­tial stand­ing of what Wash­ing­ton calls “in­ter­na­tional wa­ters” – which is ab­sent from the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea – and whether a coun­try has exclusive sovereign ju­ris­dic­tion over its “exclusive eco­nomic zones”,

But as well as the over­lap and tricky dis­tinc­tion be­tween what the Pen­tagon calls “col­lect­ing un­clas­si­fied sci­en­tific data” and “close-in sur­veil­lance” and mil­i­tary sur­veys, chances are both par­ties are keen to keep the in­ci­dent low-pro­file know­ing there is a le­gal grey zone to the mat­ter.

The best way out, there­fore, is to leave it to those in the know — in this case the two mil­i­taries. Truth is they have al­ready “se­cured an un­der­stand­ing” through “di­rect en­gage­ment”, as the Pen­tagon put it.

Trump may not care for such an end­ing, or he would not have tweeted af­ter­wards “let them keep it”. He might be­lieve there is more to ex­ploit.

It is good for both coun­tries that Trump is still com­man­der-in­wait, or we might have a sit­u­a­tion where cooler heads are pushed aside by surg­ing emo­tion.

If Trump re­fuses to heed in­cum­bent US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­vice to do bet­ter home­work and think through “what the con­se­quences are” be­fore up­end­ing long-stand­ing US poli­cies, he could eas­ily drive China-US re­la­tions into what Obama por­trays as “full-con­flict mode” where “ev­ery­body is worse off ”.

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