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As the United States approaches the inauguration of a new president, there is a dangerous dance underway in the South China Sea. Last week, China seized an underwater drone the U.S. Navy was operating there. The Obama administration demanded its return. President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that the Chinese could just keep it. Yesterday, China returned the drone with no apology. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing that the incident appeared calculated to send a message to the United States about China's designs on the region.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: After China fished the drone out of the sea and took it away, the U.S. filed a diplomatic protest. It argued that the drone was simply collecting scientific data in international waters. China, meanwhile, alleges that the drone was just the latest in decades of U.S. efforts to collect military intelligence on what it considers China's doorstep, and that has to stop. Yue Gang, a retired Chinese army colonel, says the incident was also meant to send a message to the incoming U.S. administration.
YUE GANG: (Through interpreter) We were hitting back, militarily but indirectly, at President-elect Trump's messing with the one-China principle.
KUHN: The one-China policy allows the U.S. to maintain unofficial relations with Taiwan by acknowledging that the island is not an independent nation. Donald Trump challenged that policy when he spoke by phone with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen this month. But Yue Gang adds that Beijing was restrained and careful not to let the incident escalate.
YUE: (Through interpreter) I hope that the U.S. side can read and understand China's good intentions, and see that China wants cooperation to be the mainstream of our relations.
KUHN: But some foreign analysts see other, less benign intentions.
EUAN GRAHAM: Driving this at the strategic level is China's increased interest in the South China Sea as a patrol area for its ballistic missile submarines and all of the conventional defenses that are associated with that.
KUHN: Euan Graham is an expert on Asian security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia. He says that incidents such as seizing a drone or building up a coral reef may not individually cause the U.S. much pain.
GRAHAM: But if it's the death of a thousand cuts, to a point when the U.S. can no longer operate freely, then that will mean the U.S. forward presence in Asia is fundamentally challenged at a strategic level.
KUHN: Graham's not saying that the U.S. has lost the South China Sea or its military advantage to China yet, but...
GRAHAM: The old days of being able to sail through the South China Sea risk-free have gone. Now every U.S. vessel more or less attracts a Chinese shadow.
KUHN: The U.S. Navy conducts so-called freedom of navigation operations to keep vital sea lanes open. Retired Colonel Yue Gang says that China intends to put an end to what it considers U.S. military provocations in the South China Sea in the next five to 10 years.
YUE: (Through interpreter) The U.S. uses the pretense of freedom of overflight and navigation. But what it's really saying is I'm still the top dog, I maintain the order around here, so as to hold on to its domination of the seas.
KUHN: He describes the drone incident as a sort of body check which is unlikely to trigger a full-on brawl between the U.S. and China, especially during the transition to a new administration. But President-elect Donald Trump has signaled that he may be more confrontational towards China than his predecessor. And more unconventional, too, by, for example, using security issues for leverage against China's trade policies or vice versa.
KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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