Ten­sions re­main as China re­turns seized U.S. drone

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY GIL­LIAN WONG

BEI­JING | China on Tues­day handed back to the United States an un­der­wa­ter drone it had seized last week in an in­ci­dent that raised ten­sions in a re­la­tion­ship that has been tested by Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s sig­nals of a tougher pol­icy to­ward Bei­jing.

Mr. Trump has riled the Chi­nese lead­er­ship by say­ing he might re­con­sider U.S. pol­icy to­ward Tai­wan, the self-ruled is­land the main­land claims as its ter­ri­tory.

The Chi­nese navy ves­sel that seized the drone re­turned it near where it was seized, and it was re­ceived by the USS Mustin about 50 miles north­west of Su­bic Bay in the Philip­pines, Pen­tagon press sec­re­tary Peter Cook said in a state­ment. Mr. Cook said Wash­ing­ton con­sid­ered the seizure il­le­gal.

“This in­ci­dent was in­con­sis­tent with both in­ter­na­tional law and stan­dards of pro­fes­sion­al­ism for con­duct be­tween navies at sea,” he said, adding that the U.S. has called on China to re­frain from “fur­ther ef­forts to im­pede law­ful U.S. ac­tiv­i­ties.”

The state­ment said the U.S. would con­tinue to “fly, sail, and op­er­ate in the South China Sea wher­ever in­ter­na­tional law al­lows.” Such “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion” mis­sions in which U.S. ships sail near China’s ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands have drawn an­gry warn­ings and re­bukes from Bei­jing.

A spokes­woman of China’s Foreign Min­istry said there was no ba­sis for the Pen­tagon’s as­ser­tion that the seizure was un­law­ful, though she didn’t fully ex­plain the po­si­tion, in­stead link­ing it to the U.S.’s mil­i­tary pres­ence in the wa­ters, which Bei­jing con­sid­ers provoca­tive.

“We have been point­ing out that, over a long time, the U.S. has been send­ing air­craft and ves­sels to con­duct close-in re­con­nais­sance and mil­i­tary sur­veys in wa­ters fac­ing China, which poses threats to China’s sovereignty and se­cu­rity,” said Hua Chun­y­ing, the spokes­woman. “That is the root cause of the in­ci­dent,” she said, call­ing on the Pen­tagon to stop such ac­tiv­i­ties.

China’s de­fense min­istry said in a state­ment that it handed the drone back after “friendly con­sul­ta­tions.”

Chi­nese of­fi­cials say the drone was re­moved from the wa­ter to en­sure the safety of pass­ing ships, but do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal ex­perts have read the move as a warn­ing to Pres­i­dent-elect Trump not to test Bei­jing’s re­solve over Tai­wan.

Early this month, Mr. Trump broke pro­to­col by speak­ing with Tai­wanese Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen. He later said he did not feel “bound by a one-China pol­icy” un­less the U.S. could gain trade or other ben­e­fits from China. Bei­jing re­gards any ques­tion­ing of its sovereignty over Tai­wan as a grave in­sult.

“China wants to send a mes­sage to the U.S. side about how se­ri­ous the con­se­quences can be if sen­si­tive is­sues in China-U.S. re­la­tions are han­dled uni­lat­er­ally and in­dis­creetly,” said Xiong Zhiy­ong, an in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions ex­pert at the China Foreign Af­fairs Univer­sity in Bei­jing. “The re­turn of the seized drone shows that China hopes the U.S. will not pro­voke China on th­ese is­sues and en­gage in solv­ing is­sues through con­sul­ta­tion.”

The in­ci­dent un­der­scores how Mr. Trump will con­front as pres­i­dent an in­creas­ingly as­sertive China that wants to ex­tend its reach in the South China Sea, a strate­gi­cally vi­tal area through which about $5 tril­lion in global trade passes each year. Sev­eral of China’s smaller neigh­bors have protested Bei­jing’s ter­ri­to­rial claims there and are closely watch­ing Mr. Trump’s han­dling of the dis­puted sea.

The seizure of the drone fits into China’s broader strat­egy aimed at shap­ing the per­cep­tion that it is in con­trol of the South China Sea and will not back down, said Michael Raska, a mil­i­tary an­a­lyst at the S. Ra­jarat­nam School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Sin­ga­pore.

“They use the South China Sea as po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and in­for­ma­tional means to project power and to in­flu­ence do­mes­tic and ex­ter­nal per­cep­tion that the South China Sea is ba­si­cally Chi­nese,” Mr. Raska said. “This puts the U.S. and China into con­tend­ing tra­jec­to­ries, but nei­ther side has the strate­gic in­ter­est to es­ca­late be­yond th­ese low-level in­ci­dents.”

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