[Note Update at the end]
I got a good laugh out of the tricky nature of Chinese diplomacy. This was the headline.
It was totally audacious. A Chinese warship put a small boat into the water right when an oceanographic ship under a Navy contract was retrieving two drones. The small boat came up right next to the American ship, snagged one of the drones, and merrily sailed away. The ship was in international waters off the Philippines. Not spying as far as anyone knows.
Here’s why I laughed. The Chinese are thumbing their nose at the Donald for talking to Taiwan. They know that it wasn’t a noob move, that it was very deliberate. But they are no fools, they are very deliberate themselves. First, look at the action. The ship is NOT a US military vessel. The drone is NOT a US military drone. But the ship is operating under a contract to the US Navy to do oceanographic research.
That means that stealing that drone is about as close as you can come to an act of war WITHOUT crossing that bright red line. Nobody was hurt. No US military property was touched. Diplomatic genius.
Next issue. Timing. They know that in a couple months we’ll likely have General “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense and Rex “T. Rex” Tillerson as Secretary of State. So … given the choice of timing, if you were a Chinese diplomat, just when would you pull the trigger on sending this particular message to the Donald, this carefully non-violent message which is very near to (but not quite) an act of war?
Would you do it in two months when you are facing T. Rex and the Mad Dog … or would you do it just as Obama was heading to Hawaii to add a few last purchases on his American Taxpayers Express Card to the $85 million dollar price tag paid for his vacations to date?
Of course, what the Chinese will do is that they will immediately disassemble the drone and measure and test and photograph every part of it, download all the software, steal everything they can. Even though it is likely just an oceanographic drone, there’s still lots to be learned.
Then, if I were them, I’d reassemble it in immaculate pristine working condition … except I’d put some kind of carefully hidden software bug into it that could hijack the video and audio feed from the drone on command.
Then I’d hand it back to the US and watch what people said and did before they finally realized that their every move was being recorded.
In any case, bugged or not, you need to think about the timing of that move as well. My guess? The Chinese will hand it back to Trump, not to Obama. Again it’s a double win. They thumb their nose at Obama, a final chance to demonstrate US weakness under Obama, and at the same time they make it clear that the message is intended for the Donald. If I were them, I would hand it back just after the Inauguration, like the Iranians did with the American prisoners.
Then I’d laugh all the way back to Beijing …
[Update 18 December 2016] Oh, it just gets better. The Negotiator-in-Chief has seen the opportunity I and others overlooked. This from the tweetstream of consciousness @realDonaldTrump…
<blockquote>We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!</blockquote>
This is brilliant. He’s already said he doesn’t care when or if the Chinese return it. They were planning to hold it for psychological ransom, return it at the precise moment of their choosing … and he’s just blown them totally out of the water. Their hostage is useless.
We are in uncharted waters here. The President-Elect is conducting foreign diplomacy … and winning …