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.