President-elect Donald Trump has risked further inflaming US
relations with China
, after he used Twitter on Saturday to accuse China of an “unpresidented [sic] act” in its seizing of an unmanned American submarine this week.
“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act,” Trump said, misspelling “unprecedented”.
The tweet was later reissued with the correct spelling of “unprecedented”. The tweet containing the error was deleted.
His message – itself without precedent given his status as a president-elect commenting on an international incident before assuming power – was likely to worsen fears of increased US-China tensions under his presidency that have grown over his rhetoric on trade and policy towards Taiwan
Trump’s tweet was issued shortly after China’s foreign ministry said it was negotiating with the US over the vehicle, a “glider” used to collect unclassified scientific data.
A Pentagon spokesman said it was being operated by civilian contractors when it was seized on Thursday in international waters, about 57 miles north-west of Subic Bay, near the Philippines
, in the South China Sea.
The unmanned vehicle was deployed by the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic and surveillance ship. A diplomatic complaint was issued by the US after its seizure, and its return demanded.
The area in which the submarine was taken is claimed by China virtually in its entirety. China has been building islands, and this week it was reported to have installed “significant” weaponry on them – including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems.
On Saturday, the Chinese foreign ministry said that American “hyping up” was not conducive to a smooth resolution of an incident that began when a Chinese naval vessel discovered a piece of “unidentified equipment” and checked it to prevent any navigational safety issues, before discovering it was a US drone.
“China decided to return it to the US side in an appropriate manner, and China and the US have all along been in communication about it,” a statement on the ministry website said.
“During this process, the US side’s unilateral and open hyping up is inappropriate, and is not beneficial to the smooth resolution of this issue. We express regret at this.”
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook later said in a statement: “Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV [unmanned underwater vehicle] to the United States.”
On Friday, in a press conference at the White House
, Barack Obama cautioned Trump against allowing relations with China to slip into “full conflict mode”.
Trump took a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president earlier this month, breaking with nearly 40 years of US foreign policy orthodoxy, and then used a Fox News interview to question US “one China” policy on Taiwan, a breakaway island state which is not recognised by Beijing
“The idea of ‘one China’ is at the heart of their conception as a nation,” Obama said, “and so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what are the consequences.
“Because the Chinese will not treat that the way they will treat some other issues. They won’t even treat it the way they treat issues around the South China Sea, where we have had a lot of tensions. This goes to the core of how they see themselves and their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant.”
On Thursday, Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Guardian the seizure of the drone looked “like signalling from the Chinese in response to Trump’s Taiwan call”.
“It is in China’s interest to send signals before Trump is inaugurated,” she said, “so that he gets the message and [will] be more restrained once he is office.”
Observers have suggested that both during the presidential campaign – in which Trump offered belligerent rhetoric against China over trade – and after his election victory, he has used outlandish statements on Twitter as a means of distraction when under pressure from the media and opponents.
He is currently facing the belief of the White House, the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence agencies that Russia sought to influence the election in his favour – claims he has rejected and ridiculed – and questions about his business holdings and conflicts of interest that will arise when he takes office.
Trump has also failed to stage a press conference since winning the election, instead embarking on a “thank you” tour of rallies in states which voted for him.
The electoral college, in which Trump beat Hillary Clinton 306-232 despite losing the popular vote by more than 2.8m ballots, meets on Monday to decide the election victor.
Some electors have indicated an intention not to vote for Trump, but not the 38 Republican electors it would take to send the decision to the House of Representatives.
Also on Saturday morning, Trump’s transition team released a statement announcing the nomination of the South Carolina
congressman Mick Mulvaney, a budget “hawk” who has advocated deep federal spending cuts, as director of the Office of Management and Budget.