Donald Trump has further deteriorated the already-rocky relations with China. As if the U.S. President-elect’s comments about the U.S. potentially using the One China policy as a bargaining chip for trade last week weren’t enough, Trump is further stirring up relations with China. Over the weekend, Trump took to Twitter to comment on what’s already referred to as one of the most serious diplomatic incidents between China and the U.S.

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, a Chinese ship in South China Sea reportedly stole an American underwater research drone while a U.S. crew was watching. Trump, who’s still one month away from officially becoming President of the U.S., accused Beijing of stealing the U.S. Navy drone.

In his controversial tweet, Trump misspelled the word “unprecedented” and wrote “unpresidented.” Since the tweet, the U.S. President-elect has been blamed for his lack of respect for international diplomacy. Trump has since deleted the tweet in which he accused the Chinese of stealing America’s underwater drone in international waters, but he was quick to re-post the tweet with the correct spelling:

The incident happened amid escalating tensions with China, and U.S. American officials issued a formal diplomatic complaint to Beijing demanding the drone USNS Bowditch’s return. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis demanded that China return the drone and warned Beijing, which has ramped up its provocative actions in the disputed South China Sea in recent years, against any similar actions in the future.

“We would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again,” Davis told reporters.

China has reportedly promised to return the underwater drone belonging to the U.S. Although the Chinese agree to get the drone back to the U.S., they have reaffirmed their opposition to the U.S. military presence in South China Sea, which Beijing considers its territory.

While the underwater drone incident has already been called one of the most serious diplomatic incidents between Beijing and Washington in recent history, experts started mulling the possibility of war between the two nations when Trump broke America’s four-decades-long diplomatic protocol by taking a congratulatory call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

With the election of Trump as the next U.S. President, relations between Washington and Beijing continue to deteriorate. Trump was never a fan of Beijing during his presidential campaign. The U.S. President-elect criticized China’s currency policies and slammed its activities in the South China Sea. Trump also appears to be hell-bent on actually slapping Beijing with huge tariffs on imported Chinese goods.

But when Trump comments about what the Chinese care about the most – the disputed South China Sea – both American and Chinese experts realized that the Trump vs. China saga is only beginning.

Trump has a number of issues with Beijing, and the U.S. President-elect is willing to use the One China policy as a bargaining chip for trade. In particular, he doesn’t like China meddling in the South China Sea. He also doesn’t like China’s high taxes on U.S. exports as well as Beijing’s lack of resolve when it comes to countering North Korea’s nuclear threats.

After Trump suggested last week that the U.S. shouldn’t be bound by the One China policy, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang warned that if that policy “is compromised or disrupted, the sound and steady growth of the China-U.S. relationship as well as bilateral cooperation in major fields would be out of the question.”

Trump’s election victory wasn’t the beginning of tensions between the U.S. and China. Tensions between the two economic superpowers go back decades. However, even though they don’t enjoy the friendliest of relations, Beijing and Washington manage to enjoy robust economic ties. Even though Trump may not be happy about the current state of things in two-way goods trade between the two nations, the trade still totaled approximately $600 billion last year.

Let’s also not forget that China holds about $1.2 trillion worth of U.S. debt, and that’s more than any other country in the world. While theories about a possible war between Beijing and Washington still linger, there are a number of unanswered questions.

Given such robust trade ties, does it mean the U.S. has reasons to believe it could confront China militarily without incurring great economic damage? The two nations have become so intertwined economically that it’s even difficult to imagine the U.S. and China cutting their economic ties.

But one of the lessons learned from World War I is that things can escalate very quickly, and seemingly peaceful relations can lead to an all-out, destructive war involving millions of people.

Going to war with the U.S. would be a mess for China, as it faces huge internal challenges. Separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang and Taiwan’s push for independence don’t exactly unify the nation. On top of that, the ruling Communist Party has found itself in big trouble lately. Leaders in Beijing, including President Xi Jinping, are concerned about increasing threats to the ruling party, which is why the authorities have ramped up their crackdowns on the media and civil society.

China currently has the lowest fertility rate in the world, while its demographic outlook just doesn’t look good. China’s working-age population is shrinking, so it’s expected that by 2055, its elderly population will exceed the elderly population of all of North America and Europe combined.

At the same time, Beijing doesn’t stop hoping that it can satiate its integrity appetites and continues to pick fights with its neighbors. The much-talked about South China Sea dispute is currently a simmering pot that could boil over at any second.

But even though there are indeed tensions between Washington and Beijing, it’s still hard to imagine an all-out war between the two nations. While it’s rather unlikely either of the two countries are prepared for a war involving large-scale troop deployments and thousands of casualties, the possibility of non-conventional warfare is still very high.

The two nations have powerful nuclear weapons they could use at any second, but it’s more likely that they have chosen cyber-warfare instead. However, the possibility of an all-out war should never be ruled out. The U.S. and China may be separated by vast expanses of land and bodies of water, but let’s not forget that there are enough hotheads in both camps nowadays.