TOKYO -- U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are already waging a psychological battle.
As Trump flouts protocol by speaking to the leader of Taiwan and relegating even the "one China" policy to the negotiating table, the discord between the two global powers is already pronounced even before he takes office.
"Will there be an armed clash in the South China Sea?" That was the question splashed across the front page of some Asian newspapers after China captured a U.S. Navy drone on Dec. 15. Beijing returned the underwater craft on Dec. 20. But the fact that China forcibly blocked U.S. attempts to gather information at sea highlighted the tensions between the two powers, which are both armed with nuclear submarines.
Trump tweeted that China "stole" the drone. Beijing responded that it was only natural for it to inspect unidentified objects that it comes across. But the drone was taken just 450 meters from its mother vessel, which was calling for its return through the radio. Capturing something when knowing who it belongs to is stealing, and was a clear provocation by the People's Liberation Army.
The incident also occurred in international waters, 90km northwest of the Philippines' Subic Bay and outside Beijing's "nine-dash line" claims over almost the entire South China Sea. It was also close to the Scarborough Shoal, which China is looking to turn into an island. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's recent overtures toward China was behind Beijing's gambit.
Search for the Achilles heel
"The Chinese military thought now would be a safe time to harass U.S. forces near the Philippines," one expert on the South China Sea said. "It was testing how the U.S. government and Duterte would respond."
"China wants to turn its military control around the Scarborough Shoal into a fait accompli, taking advantage of the fact that American forces have their hands tied amid a political transition period," said another.
The Philippines, a U.S. military ally, scored a sweeping victory against Chinese maritime claims at an international court in July. But Duterte said on Dec. 17 that he "will not impose anything on China," revealing his intention not to work with the U.S. on this issue. Though Beijing returned the U.S. drone before the situation got out of hand, it still managed to achieve its desired outcome.
The Chinese military has also been making a push to the east. On Dec. 10, it flew a squadron of warplanes by Japan's Okinawa Prefecture, skirting Taiwan in international airspace before passing through the Bashi Channel that separates the island from the Philippines.
The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force responded by deploying F-15 fighters. The U.S. also monitored the situation using the RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude unmanned surveillance aircraft, according to Taiwan's United Daily News. China was looking to see how the U.S. military would respond when it puts pressure on Japan and Taiwan.
Beijing had another political motive -- throwing a wrench into the rapprochement between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Around the time of their summit on Dec. 15-16 in Japan, a strange video believed to have been leaked by the Chinese military appeared online. The clip showed a PLA Su-30 fighter flying next to an F-15, accompanied by provocative lines like "lock on."
"What's important is that we can verify the plane shown is a Su-30, which were brought in from Russia," a Chinese security official said. The aircraft is a symbol of close military ties between Beijing and Moscow. The clip was a message to Abe that Putin was a friend to China.
Xi is keeping a close eye on Putin, his one ally. Trump meanwhile has nominated Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil and a friend to the Russian president, as his secretary of state. Some at a Chinese think tank worry that Trump will try to put pressure on Beijing through Putin.
Warning from a Chinese billionaire
China initially welcomed the idea of a President Trump, seeing him as a profit-seeking businessman and an easier opponent than Hillary Clinton. Beijing thought it would be able to maneuver him with a carrot-and-stick approach, and had complete confidence that it had enough cash to lure him into a deal.
One incident highlighted these intentions. Chinese property mogul Wang Jianlin said in Beijing on Dec. 10 that he had invested $10 billion in the U.S., warning that the over 20,000 people his businesses employ there will be out of jobs if something goes wrong.
This was not an empty threat. Wang's Dalian Wanda Group, China's largest commercial property developer, has acquired American cinema operator AMC Entertainment Holdings and Legendary Entertainment, known for producing the "Dark Knight" trilogy.
Those familiar with the matter say that China's Communist Party is behind the group. Wanda has deep ties to the so-called princelings, the children of influential party leaders. Wang admitted that a company owned by Xi's brother-in-law once held Wanda stock.
Trump has freely snubbed diplomatic protocols and even put Beijing's "one China" policy on the table. The massive U.S. trade deficit with China, in addition to tariffs and currency manipulation, could all become a subject of negotiation as well. Xi had underestimated Trump, and is now unsure how to proceed.
China will go through a leadership reshuffle in the second half of next year, and Xi could take drastic measures at sea as the power struggle intensifies. Before the reshuffle in 2012, China suddenly took a hard line on the disputed Senkaku Islands, which it calls the Diaoyu. Japanese corporations suffered greatly due to the anti-Japan protests that resulted.
Trump nominated retired Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis as his secretary of defense. China would be playing a dangerous game going against an experienced military man who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. It will be interesting to see if the situation in the South China Sea will change once Trump takes office.
The future of the relationship between the U.S., China and Ruissa remains unclear. Japan must be prepared to respond to any scenario with a flexible diplomatic strategy that is not bound by preconceptions.