Saturday, China’s Defense Ministry said it would hand back to the U.S. Navy an underwater drone one of its boats had seized Thursday in the South China Sea. The return, it said, would be made “in an appropriate manner.”
The release of the drone, whenever it occurs, should not be the end of the saga. Washington must impose costs on Beijing for what constituted an act of piracy—and an act of war.
Chinese spokesman Yang Yujun said, in the words of the official Xinhua News Agency, that one of its navy’s lifeboats “located an unidentified device” and retrieved it “to prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels.” The Chinese claimed to have “examined the device in a professional and responsible manner.”
In fact, China’s ships had long tailed the USNS Bowditch, an unarmed reconnaissance vessel. The crew of the Bowditch, who at the time were trying to retrieve the drone, repeatedly hailed by radio the Chinese sailors, who ignored their calls and, within 500 yards of the American craft, went into the water in a small boat to seize the drone, called a Littoral Battlespace Sensing glider. The Chinese by radio told the Bowditch they were keeping the drone.
The intentional taking of what the Defense Department later termed a “sovereign immune vessel” of the United States was an act of war. The size of the object for this purpose is not relevant. Whether drone or aircraft carrier, the principle is the same.
The seizure is only the latest act in a course of belligerent conduct spanning this century. The most notorious incident involved the clipping of the wing of a U.S. Navy EP-3 over the South China Sea on April 1, 2001 by a reckless Chinese pilot. After the stricken American plane landed on the Chinese island of Hainan, Beijing imprisoned the crew for 11 days and stripped the plane of its sensitive electronic equipment. Chinese leaders, for no apparent reason, required the craft to be chopped up so that it could not be flown away.
In September 2002, China’s media claimed a Chinese fishing boat intentionally rammed the Bowditch in the Yellow Sea to disable its sonar. The incident—there may have been no ramming but there was dangerous harassment of the Bowditch—occurred in international water.
In March 2009, Chinese craft tried to sever the towed sonar array from the USNS Impeccable in international water in the South China Sea. The Victorious, Impeccable’s sister ship, was subject to extreme harassment in March and May 2009.
There have been numerous Chinese intercepts of U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force planes and vessels since then, including a near collision in December 2013 involving the USS Cowpens, a missile cruiser, in the South China Sea.
This conduct continues because the U.S. does not exact costs on China. Worse, American administrations have rewarded Beijing for unjustifiable actions.
The Bush White House, for instance, essentially apologized to China and, on top of that, paid what was effectively a ransom to free the aviators of the EP-3. The amount was characterized as a payment for room and board, but the agreement to compensate China, regardless of terminology, was one of the lowest points in America’s history.
The Obama administration, unfortunately, adopted the Bush playbook. One month after the Impeccable and Victorious incidents in March 2009, the White House sent the chief of naval operations and a missile destroyer, the Fitzgerald, to China to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese navy. One month after that gesture of friendship to Beijing, the Chinese harassed the Victorious again.
Today, President Obama cannot even talk about Chinese aggression. He did not, for example, mention it in his opening statement at his press conference Friday and did not address it when answering Mark Landler of the New York Times, who raised the drone seizure in his question.
Many, most notably Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, have ridiculed Donald Trump for the misspelling in his Saturday morning tweet on the subject—the president-elect meant “unprecedented” but instead created the word “unpresidented”—but at least he is addressing critical issues. That’s important, even if at times Trump misfires, as he did in his Saturday evening tweet suggesting the Chinese could keep the drone.
Trump, even when making mistakes, understands one thing. It is wrong for American leaders to pursue policies that ensure Beijing will put America’s men and women in harm’s way in China’s peripheral waters.
And those incidents will get worse. The site of Thursday’s drone seizure, about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, is critical.
Beijing maintains it has sovereignty over 85 percent of the South China Sea with its infamous “nine-dash line” claim, which was rejected by a July 12 arbitral ruling in The Hague, and it has continued to complain of American surveillance activity inside that now-invalidated perimeter.
Yet the drone incident took place so close to the Philippine shore that it was beyond China’s claimed area. In short, there was absolutely no justification for the Chinese navy to grab the drone.
This brazen act suggests two things. First, China has become completely lawless. That means Washington’s efforts of more than four decades to “enmesh” that country into the international system’s network of treaties, laws, rules, and conventions has completely failed.
Second, Beijing now thinks it can, with impunity, do whatever it wants wherever it wants. If it had the power, China would undoubtedly interfere with American shipping as it now does with American military vessels and aircraft.
The goal of Washington policy, therefore, should be to prevent China from ever obtaining that power. And the first step to doing that is start imposing severe diplomatic and economic costs on Beijing for, among other things, interfering with America’s right to sail and fly through the global commons.
Aggressors always urge calm after taking provocative actions, as China is now trying to do. This time, Washington should keep the temperature up.