State Councillor Yang Jiechi is the first senior Chinese official to meet Mr Trump since his inauguration.
Mr Yang also discussed security matters with the new US national security adviser, HR McMaster, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
It follows tensions over trade and security between the two countries.
On 9 February Mr Trump spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping by telephone.
In that call he agreed to honour the “One China” policy, backing away from previous threats to recognise the government of Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province.In December Mr Trump, as president-elect, had spoken on the phone to the president of Taiwan – a break in protocol which angered Beijing.
In his visit on Monday, Mr Yang also met Vice-President Mike Pence and strategist Steve Bannon, Chinese state media reported.White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that Mr Yang then “had an opportunity to say hi to the president”.
The talks with the Chinese delegation covered “shared interests of national security”, Mr Spicer said.
In January, China’s foreign ministry warned Washington against challenging Beijing’s sovereignty in parts of the South China Sea.
It came after Mr Spicer said the US would “make sure we protect our interests there”.
Barack Obama’s administration refused to take sides in the dispute.
FEW television dramas boast a plot as far-fetched as the one that has unfolded in North-East Asian geopolitics over the past two weeks. Days after North Korea tested a ballistic missile on February 12th, two women assassinated the half-brother of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, by throwing chemicals in his face at a Malaysian airport. The alleged killers said they were duped into taking part, believing the attack was a prank for a TV comedy. Malaysian police suspect that a North Korean diplomat in Malaysia may have been among the organisers, several of whom are thought to have fled to Pyongyang.
Amid such skulduggery, China’s announcement on February 18th that it would suspend imports of coal from North Korea, from the next day to the end of this year, seemed a little mundane. But China’s state-controlled media played up the decision. Global Times, a newspaper in Beijing, said the move would make it harder for North Korea to exploit international differences over the imposition of UN sanctions aimed at curtailing its nuclear programme. China appeared to be signalling to the world that it was ratcheting up pressure on its troublesome friend, as the Americans have long insisted it should.
Or it may just be posturing. On February 21st China’s foreign ministry softened the message somewhat. It said imports were being suspended because China had already bought as much coal from North Korea this year as it was allowed to under the UN’s sanctions, to which China gave its approval last March. But North Korea-watchers doubt that China could have imported its yearly quota of 7.5m tonnes in a mere six weeks. It had not appeared likely to reach its annual limit until April or May. And exceeding that cap had not been expected to matter much to China. In 2016 it imported about three times the permitted amount, using a loophole that allows trade if it helps the “livelihood” of ordinary North Koreans.
Advancing the date of the suspension, if that is what happened, would certainly have sent a strong message to North Korea, which depends on coal exports for much of its foreign currency. Announcing the move so publicly, and unexpectedly, will have shown to North Korea that China is ready to take the initiative instead of waiting to be prodded by America, as it usually does when North Korea offends.
The test of an intermediate-range missile will have rattled China. It suggested that North Korea has learned how to fire such weapons at short notice, from hard-to-detect mobile launchers. The murder of Kim Jong Nam may have been an even bigger blow. Mr Kim had been living on Chinese soil in the gambling enclave of Macau, probably under Chinese government protection. Some Chinese officials may have hoped that Mr Kim, who favours economic opening, would one day replace his half-brother. With his death “you lose one option”, says Jia Qingguo of Peking University. It has reminded China that North Korea’s dictator is doggedly determined to rule in his own way, regardless of China’s or anyone else’s views.
Growing frustration with North Korea is evident in China’s more relaxed attitude towards criticism of its neighbour. In 2013 an editor of a Communist Party-controlled publication was fired for arguing in an article that “China should abandon North Korea.” These days, academics often air that idea. Debate about North Korea now rages openly online, largely uncensored (except when people use it as a way of attacking their own regime, jokingly referred to as “West Korea”). The murder of Kim Jong Nam unleashed a torrent of ridicule towards his country by Chinese netizens. China still sees North Korea as a useful buffer against America’s army deployed in the South. But it increasingly regards the North as a liability as well, says Mr Jia.In America’s court?
China would clearly like its tough-sounding approach to encourage President Donald Trump to rethink his country’s strategy for dealing with North Korea. America has been reluctant to enter direct talks because the North has blatantly cheated on past deals—knowing that China would continue to prop it up. With China more clearly on America’s side, the Americans would have greater confidence, Chinese officials hope. Mr Trump has previously said he would be happy to have a hamburger with Mr Kim and try to persuade him to give up his nukes. The trouble is, Mr Kim sees those weapons as the one thing that guarantees the survival of his odious regime.
It’s been a month and adjusting to Donald Trump as US president has been an enormous challenge for China, as for many around the world.
He arrived in office full of provocative and unpredictable messaging on China, but Beijing needs American goodwill, markets and technology to build what it calls its “comprehensive strength”.
That a functioning relationship with the United States is a core strategic interest for China may seem obvious, but it bears repeating.
For the time being at least Mr Trump seems to have stopped insulting and threatening China and key players in his administration are now making nice on the telephone.
So what were China’s tactics and how did it make them work?
1. Cultivate family, cultivate friends
Beijing quickly understood that President Trump would not run an administration like that of his predecessors.
Mr Trump is an elephant in a China shop for the makers of this float in Germany
It noted the importance of family.
Before Mr Trump himself or senior members of his administration talked to key players in China, and while China’s internet was full of mutterings about why Mr Trump had delivered no goodwill message over Chinese New Year, Beijing’s man in Washington, Ambassador Cui Tiankai, deftly reached out to President Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
She bridged the official divide with a well-publicised appearance at a Chinese New Year function at Beijing’s embassy in Washington.
Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner also has lines of communication to Beijing through his Chinese business partners.
And President Trump’s other daughter Tiffany made a point of sitting in the front row of the New York Fashion Week show of Chinese designer Taoray Wang.
Ms Wang and Tiffany Trump have praised each another
To bolster this network of unofficial connections, China’s best known private entrepreneur Jack Ma, met Mr Trump and promised to create a million American jobs through selling US products on his Alibaba e-commerce platforms.
Even private companies in China have Communist Party cells and are required to do Beijing’s bidding when it comes to matters of strategic national interest.
Jack Ma was on mission and on message. As were the 100 firms which sponsored a Chinese New Year greeting message to Mr Trump on a Times Square billboard in New York.
2. Bring gifts
Mr Trump’s controversial business empire has multiple trademark cases languishing in Chinese courts.
Beijing makes no bones about the fact that its courts are answerable to the Communist Party.
It was an easy act of goodwill to speed through a trademark registration for construction services that Mr Trump had sought for a decade, especially as the move was consistent with a wider move against businesses which jump on the names of public figures as trademarks.
After years of wrangling, Chinese courts awarded Mr Trump valuable commercial rights to his name
In the Trump case, the necessary moves were made quickly and without fanfare last autumn, and the case closed with a victory for Mr Trump last week.
3. Speak softly until you need to speak loud
China is often quick to thunder against hostile foreign forces and accuse foreign governments of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.Donald Trump offered provocations which would bring down retribution on a lesser foe.
Throughout his presidential campaign he insulted and threatened China, calling it a thief and a rapist on trade and challenging its dearest held positions on Taiwan. Officials also warned of a tougher approach in the South China Sea.
But throughout, Beijing has shown iron self-discipline and restraint.
China claims almost all the South China Sea, a position the US rejects
China’s official news agency Xinhua noted of Mr Trump: “He will soon realise that leaders of the two countries must use more mature and effective ways to communicate than trading barbs via Twitter.”
Since Mr Trump’s election in November, China’s media has been on a tight leash, ordered to use Xinhua’s bland wording in its coverage of the US.
4. Don’t speak until the script is agreed
Unlike other world leaders, President Xi was conspicuously slow to pick up the phone.
Observing the fallout of President Trump’s calls with Mexican and Australian leaders, Beijing was determined to avoid the risk of an undiplomatic incident.
By hanging back till the administration’s “grown ups” like Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were in the room (figuratively and in some cases literally) China ensured it got the script it wanted.
The two leaders did not speak until long after many other leaders had called Mr TrumpWhen the phone call between President Trump and President Xi finally took place, Beijing won a new US commitment to the cherished One China policy and a dignified encounter.
President Xi emerged with his reputation as a firm and patient actor enhanced. President Trump had talked of staking out a new position on Taiwan – but stepped back.
5. Sweet talk where it pays
Since that call, the lines between Beijing and Washington DC have been humming.
Newly confirmed US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has talked to several key Chinese players on economic policy. Mr Tillerson has met his opposite number, Wang Yi, and senior diplomat Yang Jiechi.
Beijing has begun to talk of implementing “the consensus reached between President Xi and President Trump” – a relationship featuring “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win co-operation”.
6. Give what you can
In practical terms, China knows that win-win will mean delivering concessions and co-operation wherever it can. And it has already shown willing in one area of US concern, with the suspension of coal imports from North Korea.
Of course, Beijing said this decision was a technicality based on quotas.
But given the provocation of Pyongyang’s latest missile test and growing American concern over the advances of North Korea’s nuclear programme, this is much more likely to have resulted from a careful Chinese calculation of what carrots it could flourish in the direction of Donald Trump and what sticks it could brandish at Kim Jong-un.
7. Turn your opponent’s weakness into your strength
On the global stage, President Xi has usefully presented himself as not Donald Trump.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, he famously championed globalisation and free trade.
Of course, China is not a paragon of free trade, with a highly protected domestic market. But in a world of “alternative facts”, the rhetoric is powerful.
On the regional stage, China is promoting itself as a leader on multilateral trade, assiduously taking advantage of the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, which was intended to underpin American economic leadership in Asia Pacific.
And on the Chinese political stage, Mr Trump is indirectly doing Mr Xi’s work for him.
The Communist Party sometimes struggles to defend one-party authoritarian rule against the glamour and appeal of a free, open and democratic America. But the scenes of American street protest and visa chaos from President Trump’s first month in office are a propaganda gift.
An American president joining China’s state-controlled media in railing against what he calls fake, failing, dishonest US journalists is a second propaganda gift. Beijing has made extensive use of both for its political purposes at home.
Tactics that worked
Beijing will be well satisfied with its performance so far. But this is a multi-player multi-dimensional game with many dangers and traps over the long term.
It has done a good job of neutralising the risks and exploiting the opportunities of President Trump’s first month in office.
Round One to China. There are innumerable rounds still to come.
India and Russia are nearing a joint venture to make light helicopters in India, reviving a plan announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015.
Delhi needs to replace hundreds of ageing utility helicopters deployed along its Himalayan border with China as well as in the disputed Kashmir region.
This means an initial order of 200 Kamov-226 helicopters, of which 140 will be built in India as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s drive to build a domestic defence industrial base and cut imports, is expected to be increased.
And final documents relating to the $1 billion Kamov deal involving Russian Helicopters, Rosoboronexport and India’s state-run Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) has been submitted to Putin, HAL’s chief T. Suvarna Raju, told reporters on Wednesday.
While India has sealed deals with the United States for 22 Apache attack and 15 heavy lift Chinook helicopters at total cost of about $2.5 billion, plans to buy Russian helicopters and fifth generation fighter aircraft have been dogged by problems.
“There are issues between parties, but these are being tackled,” Sergey Goreslavsky, deputy director general of Rosoboronexport, said at India’s biggest air show in the southern city of Bengaluru.
A team will assess the Indian manufacturing facilities over the next few months. “We are keeping our fingers crossed about launching production this year,” an executive at Russian Helicopters said.
The executive, who did not want to be named, said the joint venture will be modelled along the lines of Brahmos, the India-Russia entity producing supersonic missiles, which which military analysts say are among the deadliest in their class.
Russia was long the main supplier of military equipment to India, but Delhi has turned to France, Israel and increasingly the United States for supply of hardware in recent years.
U.S. aerospace and defence firms Lockheed Martin and Boeing have both offered to set up production lines in India to make combat planes.
India’s space agency on Wednesday launched a record 104 satellites from a single rocket as it crossed another milestone in its low-cost space-exploration program.
The satellites from seven countries were carried by the Indian Space Research Organization’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on its 38th consecutive successful flight.
The mission reinforces India’s emerging reputation as a reliable and cost-effective option for launching satellites. In 2014, ISRO put a satellite into the orbit of Mars, becoming the first Asian country to reach the red planet at fraction of the cost of a similar launch in U.S. and Europe.
ISRO has now put 226 satellites into orbit, including 180 from foreign nations. The global space industry was estimated to be worth $323 billion in 2015, the latest year for which data are available, according to the Space Foundation, a U.S.-based research group. Commercial space business comprised as much as 76% of the industry.
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow in space-security studies at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank, said the launch was a “showcase of India’s growing capabilities.”
Spectators watched the launch of ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C37) at Sriharikota on Feb. 15, 2017.
“India’s space program has come a long way,” she said.
Ms. Rajagopalan said the trend for sending more small satellites–instead of fewer large ones–will benefit ISRO due to the cost advantages it offers over its American and European competitors. The Space Foundation said nano satellites comprised 48% of launches in 2015
Wednesday’s feat eclipses the record set by Russia in 2014 when it launched 37 satellites in a single mission. A National Aeronautics and Space Administration rocket carried 29 satellites in 2013.
The PSLV rocket blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh at 9.28 a.m. Wednesday local time (10.58 p.m. Tuesday ET).
The ISRO rocket hurtles through the sky after launch from Sriharikota, India, Feb. 15, 2017.
It first released its main cargo, ISRO’s 714 kilogram Cartosat-2 series satellite, which will be used for earth observation. It then released two smaller ISRO satellites, followed by the remaining 101 nano satellites, one each from Israel, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, and 96 from the U.S. As many as 88 of the nano satellites belonged to U.S.-based company Planet Inc.
ISRO’s two smaller satellites are carrying equipment for conducting various experiments.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his congratulations. “This remarkable feat by @isro is yet another proud moment for our space scientific community and the nation. India salutes our scientists,” the message said.
Mission Director B. Jayakumar said it was a challenge to “find real estate (on the PSLV rocket) to accommodate all the satellites.” He said a “unique separation sequence” was designed due to the large number of satellites.
ISRO chairman Kiran Kumar Rao, right, held up models of the CARTOSAT-2 and Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C37) after the launch in Sriharikota, India, Feb. 15, 2017.
ISRO said the satellites went into orbit 506 kilometers from earth, inclined at an angle of 97.46 degrees to the equator–very close to the intended orbit–after a flight of nearly 17 minutes. In the subsequent 12 minutes, all 104 satellites were successfully separated from the rocket in sequence, it said.
After separation, the two solar panels of ISRO’s Cartosat-2 series satellite were deployed and the space agency’s command center in Bangalore took control. In the coming days, the satellite will begin to provide start sending back black and white, and color pictures, ISRO said.
US President Donald Trump has sent a letter to Xi Jinping, his first direct approach to the Chinese leader.
The president thanked Mr Xi for congratulating him on his inauguration last month and said he looked forward to “constructive” relations.
Mr Trump has not yet spoken to Mr Xi but did call other world leaders.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said his country attached great importance to the letter, Reuters news agency reports.
He commended Mr Trump for sending Lunar New Year greetings to the Chinese people and said co-operation between the two countries was the only option.
Change in tone
The letter, featuring standard diplomatic pleasantries, comes after a steady stream of belligerent attacks aimed at Chinese trade and policies.
In recent months, Mr Trump has challenged Beijing on sensitive issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. He angered China by taking a call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, the first involving a US president or president-elect in decades.
China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province to be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. The US cut formal ties with Taiwan in 1979.
China’s gamble for global supremacy in the Trump era
Is Taiwan a bargaining-chip for Trump on China?
Chinese Year of the Rooster marked with huge Trump sculpture
“President Trump stated that he looks forward to working with President Xi to develop a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China,” the letter said, according to the White House.
Mr Trump also wished the Chinese people “a happy Lantern Festival and prosperous Year of the Rooster”.
Lunar New Year celebrations officially end on Saturday with a Lantern Festival.
China has been angered by Mr Trump’s comments on the One China policy concerning Taiwan
The conciliatory tone is in stark contrast to previous statements by Mr Trump, whose presidential campaign was marked by anti-China rhetoric that continued after winning the election.
In December, before his inauguration, Mr Trump posted a series of tweets criticising China for its exchange rate policy and its operations in the South China Sea.
He also questioned the One China policy, which is the diplomatic acknowledgement by the US of Beijing’s position that there is only one Chinese government, following his call with Taiwan.
Shortly after he took office on 20 January, his administration vowed to prevent China from taking territory in the South China Sea.
Beijing has so far responded cautiously, expressing “serious concern” about Mr Trump’s position on the One China policy, and urging the US to maintain close ties with China.
It also lodged a protest over the phone call with Ms Tsai, dismissing it as a “petty trick”, and maintained it would “defend its rights” in the South China Sea.
But state media outlets have been less restrained and have issued strongly-worded rebukes, blasting Mr Trump for “playing with fire” on the Taiwan issue.
They also warned of serious action and a “resolute battle” against Mr Trump.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to speak with U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday in a conversation that will set the tone for future relations.New Delhi hopes it can begin to decipher what the country’s top diplomat, S. Jaishankar, last week called a world in 2017 filled with “known and unknown unknowns”—a reflection on the rapidly-changing global landscape marked by Mr. Trump’s presidency in the U.S., turmoil in Europe and rising Chinese power.
Here are five things Mr. Modi will likely be listening for.
Mr. Trump has vowed to be tough on terror, a goal he shares with Mr. Modi. But it isn’t clear how that will shape the new U.S. administration’s views on Pakistan, India’s rival neighbor that Mr. Modi has called the epicenter of global terrorism.India’s security establishment will be watching to see if Mr. Trump puts greater pressure on Pakistan to stamp out terrorist groups on its soil and whether U.S. supply of aid and weapons to Islamabad, a long-standing thorn in India-U.S. ties, will diminish.Mr. Trump’s Pakistan policy will depend in large part on his approach to the conflict in Afghanistan, another big unknown Indians will be looking for more clarity on.
India is closely watching for clues on how Mr. Trump plans to tackle China, given the new U.S. president’s combative tone toward Beijing. A more-assertive China has in recent years driven closer U.S.-India collaboration on defense and security issues. In an address last week, Mr. Modi, without naming China, spoke about “rising ambitions and rivalries” in Asia as “visible stress points” and called for “predictable behavior rooted in international norms and respect for sovereignty.”But if U.S.-China differences spilled into a military confrontation, it is unclear how India, which is involved in territorial disputes with its more-powerful neighbor, will respond.
India will also be looking for signs of a different outcome analysts have predicted—a more inward-looking U.S. under Mr. Trump emboldening an ambitious Chinese leadership to expand the country’s power. Such a development could push India to play a bigger role in Asia and to further strengthen strategic ties with Japan, which is also wary of China’s rise.
3 H-1B visas
Indian officials are anxious to see if Mr. Trump moves to tighten visa rules that would affect the country’s outsourcing giants like Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., Infosys Ltd. and Wipro Ltd. that send programmers and engineers to the U.S. on high-skilled worker, or H-1B, visas. Mr. Trump at times during the campaign criticized the program for supplying “cheap labor.”
Among the biggest potential shifts under a Trump presidency is closer ties between the U.S. and Russia. India, which has long-standing ties with Moscow, would welcome such a development. Analysts in India believe U.S.-Russia tensions under President Barack Obama pushed Russia closer to China. New Delhi will keep an eye on whether Mr. Trump considers easing U.S. sanctions on Russia.
5 NSG membership
India is counting on U.S. backing to help it become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group that controls trade in nuclear fuel and technology. Mr. Modi has made a big push for New Delhi’s entry, but has repeatedly been stymied by China. He will hope Mr. Trump finds a way to override Beijing’s objections.
China’s President Xi Jinping heads to Davos this week.
It’s the first time a Chinese head of state is attending the global forum and he’ll be star of the show.
But besides the allure of snow-capped alpine peaks and tasty cups of hot chocolate, why is he doing this? And why now?
First off, let’s not kid ourselves. Davos is a venue where little meaningful gets done.
It has struggled to shake its reputation as a very expensive talking shop that sees the rich and powerful of global business, politics, arts and society meet every year to sip cocktails and connect.
Along the way they’re supposed to think big thoughts about how to improve the world economy.
But given that their wealth and lifestyles are precisely what many parts of the developed world is seeing a backlash against right now, it’s not clear how much their solutions will help.
Davos: Are the global elite in retreat?
Globalisation and free trade are being attacked in the US and Europe. And with a new president about to enter the White House, President Xi’s speech will be watched very carefully.
According to Jiang Jianguo, a minister in China’s State Council Information office, President Xi will be “offering Chinese remedies for the world’s economic ailments”.
So what might he say, and why is this important? Here are three things I’ll be watching for:
1) Free trade is good trade
Globalisation has arguably benefited China more than any other country in the world.As the US pulls out of free trade agreements, President Xi is likely to laud its merits, and position China as the world’s newest and friendliest trading partner.
Of course, there’s always the criticism that China only opens up its economy just enough to benefit itself.But President Xi is likely to tackle that too. Chinese leaders tend to make big announcements in speeches abroad, so watch out for any further possible access to China’s economy.
2) China as a force for peace, not war
China’s growing military might in the South China Sea is a potential flashpoint
It’s part of China’s public diplomacy to convince the world that China’s rise is a good thing for everyone.
President Xi will be likely to present an image of China to the world “as a friend to everyone, a big wonderful panda that everyone should hug, and that everyone should just relax,” says Prof Kerry Brown of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.
But this may be a hard sell, especially given the lingering concerns about China’s growing military might in the South China Sea.
Davos is a good opportunity to challenge these perceptions, says Jia Xiudong, at the China Institute of International Affairs in Beijing.
“Other countries may see China as an aggressive, assertive country. But this is a misunderstanding. That’s why it’s such a good opportunity for the president to communicate his message.
“Oh, and that no-one will be unfurling Free Tibet flags or heckling him (at least not inside the venue) will probably be an added benefit.
3) It’s all about symbolism, silly
President Xi’s speech comes just three days before Donald Trump is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States.
“America is downgraded slightly in the eyes of the world because of the election,” says Prof Brown. “And China is more prominent – so it’s quite significant.”
Vanity is also a factor. President Xi enjoys massive popularity at home, and, as you might expect, would like to see that level of respect paid to him on the international stage.
What better way to do that than to praise the virtues of China’s economic wisdom to a receptive crowd, at a time when faith in the US’s ability as the de facto superpower is being questioned and dissatisfaction for the free market system – and the inequality it has created – is rising.
But while President Xi may enjoy being thrust into the spotlight on the Davos stage, it won’t erase some of the hard truths he has to deal with back home.
China’s economy is slowing down and its currency, the yuan, is weakening to lows not seen since 2008.
All of this has Beijing extremely concerned. China knows better than most that a growing gap between the haves and the have nots is devastating for social stability.
IT WAS an operation carried out with remarkable cool. On December 15th, less than 500 metres away from an American navy ship, a Chinese one deployed a smaller boat to grab an underwater American drone. The object was then taken to the Chinese ship, which sailed off with it. Point deftly made.
The incident occurred in the South China Sea, in which China says the Americans have no business snooping around. By seizing the drone, it has made clear that two can play at being annoying. Mercifully no shots were fired. After remonstrations by the Americans, China agreed to give the drone back “in an appropriate manner”. It chose its moment five days later, handing the device over in the same area where it had snatched it. The Pentagon, though clearly irritated, has downplayed the drone’s importance, saying it cost (a mere) $150,000 and that most of its technology was commercially available. The drone was reportedly carrying out tests of the water’s properties, including salinity and temperature.
But it may turn into less of a game. Relations between the two nuclear powers, never easy at the best of times, are under extra strain as Donald Trump prepares to take over as president on January 20th. Mr Trump has already angered China by talking on the phone to Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, and challenging China’s cherished “one-China” policy, crucial to which is the idea that Taiwan is part of it.
The capture of the drone took place on the outer perimeter of China’s expansive claim to the sea, about 50 miles (80km) from the Philippine port of Subic Bay, which was once home to a large American naval base (see map).
It appeared calculated to show China’s naval reach, with only minimal risk of any conflict—the American ship that was operating the drone, the Bowditch, is a not a combat vessel. Once in office, however, Mr Trump could face tougher challenges, exacerbated by China’s growing presence in the South China Sea: it appears to be installing weapons on islands it has been building there.
His two predecessors were each tested by a dangerous military standoff with China in their first months in office. With George Bush it involved a mid-air collision in April 2001 between an American spy-plane and a Chinese fighter-jet off China’s southern coast. The Chinese pilot was killed and the disabled American plane made an emergency landing at a Chinese airfield. There the crew of 24 was released after 11 days of painstaking diplomacy. The aircraft, full of advanced technology, was returned—in pieces—months later.
In March 2009 it was Barack Obama’s turn. According to the Pentagon, an American surveillance ship, the Impeccable, was sailing 75 miles from China’s coast when it was buzzed by Chinese aircraft and then confronted by five Chinese ships. First the Chinese forced it to make an emergency stop, then they scattered debris in front of the American ship as it tried to sail away. They also attempted to snatch sonar equipment it was towing. The Impeccable soon returned—this time in the reassuring company of an American destroyer.
For now, feuding between Mr Trump and China is less nail-biting. In Twitter messages, Mr Trump bashed China for taking the drone and later said China should keep it. Chinese media have in turn bashed Mr Trump. One newspaper said he had “no sense of how to lead a superpower”. Global Times, a nationalist newspaper in Beijing, said that China would “not exercise restraint” should Mr Trump fail to change his ways once in the White House. He would be wise to study the form.
BY THE end of this month, say Chinese officials, work will be completed on a big upgrade of facilities at a monument to one of the scariest moments in the recent history of relations between China and the United States: an upsurge of tensions in the Taiwan Strait in the mid-1990s that saw the two nuclear powers inching towards the brink of war.
The structure is a concrete tower on an island in the strait, just off the Chinese coast. Atop it more than 100 generals watched a mock invasion of Taiwan by China’s army on a beach below. “Unite the motherland, invigorate China”, says a slogan in gold characters down the side of the building. The meaning of these words at a place where tanks and troops once stormed ashore with warplanes streaking overhead is: we want Taiwan back, by force if necessary.
The building work involves an expansion of the tower’s car park, improvements to the road up to it and other changes to make the place on Pingtan Island in Fujian province more tourist-friendly. The timing may be fortuitous. On December 11th America’s president-elect, Donald Trump, in an interview with Fox News, questioned what China regards as a sacred underpinning of its relationship with America: the principle that there is but “one China” (which, decoded, means that the government of Taiwan is illegitimate). China, bristling with rage, may well seek to remind its citizens, as well as America, of what happened when that principle was last challenged by the United States with a decision in 1995 by its then president, Bill Clinton, to allow his Taiwanese counterpart, Lee Teng-hui, to pay a private visit to America. Handy, then, that Pingtan will be able to handle extra busloads of visitors to that hilltop where China’s brass surveyed the pretend assault.
Relations between China and America are far less precarious than they were during those tense months, when China fired dummy missiles near Taiwan and America sent two aircraft-carrier battle groups close to the island to warn China not to attack it. China, though enraged by Mr Trump’s remarks (and a congratulatory call he took from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, on December 2nd), is unlikely to take retaliatory action unless Mr Trump continues to challenge the notion of one China after his inauguration on January 20th.
The chip is down
Taiwan has been in the doghouse anyway since Ms Tsai took office in May. China has cut off channels of communication with the island to show its displeasure with her own refusal to embrace the one-China idea. But Ms Tsai may have reservations herself about the way Mr Trump phrased his one-China scepticism. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a one-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” he said. Mr Trump listed ways in which America was being “badly hurt” by China, such as by the fall in the value of its currency and its island-building in the South China Sea. He accused China of “not helping us at all with North Korea”.
Many Taiwanese worry that this could mean their island will be treated by Mr Trump as a bargaining-chip. Memories are still fresh in Taiwan of secretive dealings between America and China during the cold war, which resulted in America severing diplomatic ties with the island in 1979. Ms Tsai’s government has avoided direct comment on Mr Trump’s remarks. Apparently to avoid raising tensions with China, she has also avoided public crowing over her phone call with Mr Trump.
Mr Trump’s remarks would have riled the Chinese leadership at any time. But they are particularly unwelcome at this juncture for China’s leader, Xi Jinping. He is absorbed by preparations for crucial meetings due to be held late in 2017 at which sweeping reshuffles of the Politburo and other Communist Party bodies will be announced. Those trying to block his appointments would be quick to seize on any sign that he is being soft on America over such a sensitive matter as Taiwan. Should Mr Trump persist in challenging the one-China idea, the risk of escalation will be even greater than usual in the build-up to the conclaves—all the more so, perhaps, given Mr Xi’s insistence that differences between China and Taiwan “cannot be passed on from generation to generation”. Hawkish colleagues may say that it is time to settle the issue by force.
Street protests in China against America or Taiwan would also make it more difficult for Mr Xi to compromise: he would fear becoming a target himself of Chinese nationalists’ wrath. But the risk of this may be low. Since Mr Xi took over in 2012 there have been no major outbreaks of nationalist unrest, partly thanks to his tightening of social and political controls (including locking up ever more dissidents).
Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University says people are unlikely to demonstrate over Taiwan “because they understand the new rules, the new emphasis on political discipline in the last few years.” He says a lot of people in China still admire Mr Trump for his wealth and his unexpected political success. They think that “he wants to make a deal with China.”
In Taiwan, some take comfort in the difficulty Mr Trump would face in changing the terms of America’s relations with Taiwan, such as by announcing a permanent end to arms sales. These are guaranteed by the Taiwan Relations Act, which was passed by Congress in 1979 to reassure Taiwan that America still had an interest in the island’s defence, despite the severance of official ties. Many Republicans sympathise with Taiwan and would be reluctant to support any change to that law (itself a challenge to the one-China idea with which China has—very grudgingly—learned to live).
They might also take solace in what appears to be a change in the Chinese government’s tone since the war games 20 years ago. In April Global Times, a newspaper in Beijing, published a poll showing that 85% of respondents supported unifying China with Taiwan by force, and that 58% agreed the best time would be within the next five years. It was reportedly chastised by China’s internet regulator for “hyping sensitive events” by running such a survey.