Underwater research drone spotlights US-China relations: Q & A

Underwater research drone spotlights US-China relations: Q & A

By Loree Lewis   
Two Chinese trawlers stop directly in front of USNS Impeccable on March 8, 2009,, forcing the ship to conduct an emergency "all stop" to avoid a collision. The incident took place in international waters in the South China Sea. The trawlers came within 25 feet of Impeccable, as part of an apparent coordinated effort to harass the unarmed ocean surveillance ship. (Courtesy photos/ Naval Media Content Services

WASHINGTON – China’s seizure and subsequent return of a United States Navy underwater research drone has highlighted the two countries’ often strained relations and raised questions about China’s intentions.

The Pentagon said Monday that China returned the U.S. Navy ocean glider that it seized on Dec. 15 from the waters 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay.

The underwater research drone, which is used to collect unclassified data on the water around it, was completing a pre-programmed route “conducting routine operations in the international waters of the South China Sea in full compliance with international law,” according to the Pentagon.

USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, was about to retrieve the glider that was stationary in the water when a Chinese Navy DALANG III-Class ship launched a small boat and retrieved the glider.

The U.S. ship radioed the Chinese ship, which was within about 500 yards, and made contact but the request to return the glider was ignored, according to the Pentagon.

No shots were fired by either vehicle during the incident and the Chinese ship left with a final message that it was returning to normal operations.

The event triggered the U.S. to issue a formal diplomatic protest to China to return the unmanned underwater vehicle.

TMN spoke with Gregory Poling, director of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), about the incident and the state of U.S.-China relations. The interview has been edited for clarity.

TMN: There’s been speculation about what China’s intentions were when they took this underwater research: Was it a test of how President-elect Donald Trump would respond before he takes office and is able to act? Did the Chinese naval boat take it mistakenly?

Gregory Poling (CSIS)

A: I don’t buy the Trump connection. I guess anything’s possible, but if you’re trying to send a message, this was quite the muddled message. I’m not quite sure what exactly it was. He shouldn’t do it before he takes office.

I lean toward the idea that this was a overzealous captain, or even his commander. It hasn’t followed the pattern of previous provocations we’ve seen from the Chinese. If you look at the 2009 USNS Impeccable incident, or the 2001 EP-3 spy plane incident, there was always some kind of flimsy legal rationale they had in their back pocket. This time, it looked, at least, like Beijing spent the first 36 hours scrambling to come up with what their excuse was.

You didn’t observe strong legal justification.

TMN: The Chinese Foreign Ministry alleges that “the frequent appearance of U.S. military aircraft and vessels in waters facing China for close-in reconnaissance and military surveys” pose a “threat to China’s sovereignty and security.” Was this incident used as a segue to talk about territorial issues in the South China Sea?

A: They had to shoehorn it into those concerns. The concerns about U.S. military surveillance are nothing new, but previously the objections have always been to military activities within China’s claimed exclusive economic zone. The problem here is they were not in China’s claimed exclusive economic zone. They were not in waters claimed by China at all. So, we’ve heard these very vague statements. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign affairs says “waters facing China,” the Ministry of Defense calls them “relevant waters.” None of these are legal terms. It feels at least like this was dropped in Beijing’s lap as a public relations disaster, and the best they could do with it was just avoid any legal justification and then just trying to deflect by complaining about U.S. surveillance.

TMN: The Obama administration’s response to this incident it seems from what you’ve said that you think it was appropriate. I’ve seen criticism that the Obama administration failed to respond strongly to the seizure, and that it shows a diminishment of authority in the region.

A: I will say for the Obama administration, we don’t know what was said behind closed doors. The Obama administration sent a Naval warship to the same area, or roughly the same area, to pick this drone up, and the Chinese returned it. And, Beijing acceded to that. The Obama administration did not go hat in hand to get this drone back. If there were very strong statements behind the scenes to make sure this doesn’t happen again, then that’s probably good enough. I do understand the complaints that the public response wasn’t strong enough, but again, it all depends on what was back-channeled. It was clear that this was a provocation in a league of its own. We have not seen something quite this blatantly illegal from the Chinese before, and it certainly can’t be allowed to stand. The U.S. can’t allow a precedent like this to be set. Where China can effectively commit an act of piracy on the high sea. That’s clearly a precedent the Pentagon will not let stand.

TMN: It has been U.S. Defense Department policy for the past four years that the U.S. respond to threats to unmanned vehicles similarly to the way the U.S. would to manned. When I asked a defense official about this policy today, he told me, “In general, we work to recover all of our military assets, when possible.” Is this policy risky?

A: That means protect manned and unmanned vehicles the same way, make sure whether they’re navigating or flying, because most of our unmanned vehicles are in the air, not in the sea, that they’re behaving just like a plane would. I’m not sure anybody thought what exactly you do if a foreign state decides to hijack your vessel, because it’s never happened. As far as I know, this have never happened. It’s certainly dangerous. We probably ran the risk of the U.S. Navy using force to take it back. Luckily, the USNS Bowditch is not a war ship. And, I think we can all agree that it’s a good thing that it didn’t escalate to that point. But, I suspect that the Pentagon behind closed doors in negotiations to get this back, made very clear to China how high the risk of escalation here was, and how narrowly we avoided a real crisis.

TMN: What do you think of Donald Trump’s response? This tweet he sent out the day after the Pentagon said the underwater research drone had been taken, saying that the U.S. should “should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”

A: It’s a little difficult to comment on Donald Trump’s tweets because there’s rarely any explanation before and after. By itself it kind of seems like a non sequitur – I don’t understand why we would allow China to keep it. And, it seemed to contradict the tweet he had made hours before, calling this theft and kind of hitting the Obama administration for weakness.

Clearly the only thing the Obama administration could do was demand it back. This was illegally hijacked on the high seas. To cede to that would be an enormous sign of weakness. I suspect that perhaps there was a motive to Donald Trump’s tweet that didn’t quite come through in 120 characters, but I can’t speak to it.

Satellite imagery shows China installing anti-aircraft guns and other systems on seven artificial islands in the South China Sea. This recent  picture of Johnson Reef shows what appear to be close-in weapons systems.

TMN: Any idea what that motive might be? I’ve seen it written that Trump was trying to throw off the Chinese government –send them a curveball.

A: Anything that has to do with foreign policy and Trump right now seems like idle speculation. We haven’t seen anything close to a strategic vision for U.S. place in the world, U.S. place in Asia, in China relations. All we’ve seen is the tough talk about economics. This could have been intended to send a message to China, but this seems like a wild guess.

TMN: What is the current state of U.S.-China relations; we see the word “tense” a lot in the news. And, there’s a new report with the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, of which you are the director, showing that China has placed antiaircraft guns and other defenses on artificial islands in disputed territory in the South China Sea.

A: It’s tense and it’s going to be more tense. It’s probably a futile exercise to try and speculate what the Trump team will or won’t do, but what we can say with, I think, with some certainty, is that the South China Sea, the East China Sea, a number of issues in Asia are going to demand their attention whether they like it or not. And, in the South China Sea, one of the things that is obvious now is that China is not going to slow down its military construction. It’s going to deploy more and more assets to the South China Sea in the future. So, we’re going to see run-ins with the Chinese Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force and its neighbors as well as U.S. forces far more frequently than we saw under the Obama administration – whether the Trump team likes it or not.

TMN: You recently said in an NPR interview that you don’t think these outposts are about China looking to control this trade route, through which $5.3 trillion of trade passes annually, or perhaps exploit the untapped oil and gas reserves, but rather the buildups reflect China’s view of its special historical connection to the region – like a manifest destiny. Can you expand on this idea?

A: We have to be honest that the vast majority of territorial and maritime disputes anywhere boil down to nationalism. People have been fighting and dying over specs of land for as long as we’ve been people. It is a compelling narrative to talk about the South China Sea being the busiest trading route or to talk about the potential oil and gas, and all of that is complicating factors. It leads to some of the run-ins. But if not a single dollar worth of trade went through the South China Sea, if there wasn’t a speck of oil or a single fish, China and its neighbors would still be insisting they have indisputable sovereignty here, we would still have these overlapping claims.

And, for the U.S., it’s not an interest because of trade, it’s not an interest because of oil and gas, it’s an interest because it’s a test case for how China behaves in the 21st century. This is a line in the sand on whether or not the rules-based order we built after World War II can stand during the rise of another great power, or if we’re going to have to start over from scratch.

TMN: Are you hopeful?

A: I’m cautiously optimistic. I think the Obama administration has done a good job over the last seven years of deescalating tension in laying out what U.S. interests are here – defense of a rules-based order, freedom of navigation, and defense of a stable and secure Asia Pacific. If the Trump administration and the administration that follows it – because this is a long term problem – if they are willing to commit to the same framework, commit to defending it and they can keep the international community on board – because it’s not something the U.S. can do alone – then I think eventually China will realize that this is counter-productive … that being seen as a bully and an outlaw, Beijing undermines its own narrative that it is a different kind of rising power, that it’s not going to disrupt the system, that it deserves a seat at the table.

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