The seizure of an American underwater drone in the international waters of the South China Sea by the Chinese Navy marks the latest flashpoint in bilateral relations that have entered uncharted territory with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Though it is not clear if the capture of the drone, which China agreed to return later, was a junior-level act by sailors or a strategic move directed by Beijing, Mr. Trump has seized the moment to step up his anti-China rhetoric. Interestingly, the incident comes days after he broke diplomatic protocol and accepted a congratulatory call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a move that invited an angry response from China, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province. Despite repeated assurances from the White House that the basic building blocks of U.S.-China ties have not been altered, Mr. Trump escalated matters by questioning the One- China policy. Throughout the election campaign he had maintained that he would renegotiate the terms of America’s engagement with China. He had also accused Beijing of currency manipulation. So the issue is, are his attacks on China and questions over the One-China policy just a continuation of his campaign rhetoric, or part of a well-thought-out policy to establish a new normal in ties? One theory, which the President-elect himself indicated in an interview, is that he wants concessions from China over key issues such as trade, South China Sea disputes and the North Korea nuclear crisis, and that by raising the sensitive Taiwan issue, he is trying to gain some bargaining leverage over China.
Beijing certainly won’t take this lightly. It has reiterated that the One-China policy is non-negotiable, besides installing anti-aircraft weapons and other arms on all seven artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea, as reported by a U.S. think tank with satellite imagery. China will find it politically difficult to ignore Mr. Trump’s apparent effort to change the rules of the game. The geopolitical context is possibly even more important. China is a caged naval power. It has access to both South and East China Seas, but its force projection capability is limited by the existence of several islands on these seas, such as Taiwan, Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, and the Babuyan Islands of the Philippines. One reason China is so sensitive about Taiwan is its geopolitical vulnerability. It doesn’t want other powers to dictate or change the rules of engagement on its seafront. And if Mr. Trump tries to do that in the manner he handles foreign policy now, he could risk the progress the U.S. and China have painstakingly made in bilateral ties over four decades.