Don’t rattle a cage unless you can tame the tiger inside.
After two solid weeks of diplomatic affronts by President-elect Donald J. Trump, China broke with its own diplomatic tradition — non-confrontation with the U.S. military — by seizing a U.S. Navy drone Thursday in the South China Sea.
The People’s Republic of China seized an unmanned underwater research vessel called a glider, just as it was set to be picked up by a naval research ship off the coast of the Philippines, according to the Pentagon. The strange maneuver caps a week in which surveillance photographs showed the communist superpower stockpiling weapons on artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The U.S. and Chinese navies have been jostling for influence in the region for years, but China hasn’t seized any U.S. military property since 2001, and that was following a midair collision between U.S. and Chinese surveillance planes. Aside from Trump’s diplomatic scoffs in recent weeks, Friday’s incident appears unprovoked. The U.S. research boat was clearly marked and was in international waters, according to Pentagon Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis, quoted by the Wall Street Journal.
“It’s ours, it was clearly marked, we want it back, and we don’t want this to happen again,” Davis said.
This affront may be China’s way to signal its own willingness to break ranks in order to spit back in Trump’s face, according to Carrie Gracie, BBC’s China editor.
“The seizure of a US navy drone may be Beijing’s way of sending a message to the incoming administration that it too has ways of disrupting expectations and upsetting the status quo,” Gracie writes.
President Barack Obama has struggled to keep China calm amid a continual deluge of bluster from the incoming aggravator-in-chief. Trump broke nearly four decades of diplomatic protocol earlier this month by taking a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (Since 1972 the U.S. has treated capitalist Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China as one nation, officially corresponding only with Beijing).
Trump, meanwhile, either hasn’t been briefed on the military squabble (he’s already said he doesn’t want to hear intelligence briefings), or doesn’t know quite what to say. His go-to spouting off machine, Twitter, has been focused on his recent celebrity appearances, his “victory tour” of southern states, and provoking feuds with media publications.
A potential conflict with the world’s largest standing military could quickly test the limitations of the president-elect’s actual capabilities as a leader. For the sake of world peace, lets hope he has some.