China will give back seized drone after Trump slams Beijing over issue

Beijing: China’s defence ministry said it has engaged in talks with the United States about returning an underwater drone it had seized in the South China Sea, but said Washington had not helped matters by “hyping up” the issue.

The statement was issued late on Saturday night, hours after President-elect Donald Trump waded into the diplomatic row by firing a misspelled tweet describing the act as an “unpresidented [sic] act”.

“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act,” he said later in a corrected tweet, deleting the original.

The Pentagon had demanded the swift return of the unmanned water vehicle, which it said was operated by the Bowditch, a United States naval vessel carrying out scientific research in the international waters of the South China Sea on Friday. The drone, it said, was part of an unclassified programme collecting data, including salinity in the sea and water clarity, when a Chinese navy ship launched a small boat and snatched the drone out of water, ignoring radioed demands for its return.

“It is ours, and it is clearly marked as ours and we would like it back. And we would like this not to happen again,” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said.

The Pentagon said the drone was captured 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines, a location which analysts suggested amounted to an unprecedented instance of the Chinese navy disrupting US surveillance activity in international waters.

The episode reignited a tense standoff between Beijing and Washington as both countries accused the other of ratcheting tensions in the region, a day after China signalled it had installed weapons along a string of disputed islands it claims in the South China Sea.

But American officials and international China experts were divided over whether the seizure was a low-level move made by the Chinese naval vessel which spotted the drone while shadowing the Bowditch – or a strategic action ordered by more senior officials wanting to challenge the intensifying American presence in the South China Sea.

In its statement, China’s defence ministry said its naval vessel encountered a piece of “unidentified equipment” and checked it to prevent navigational safety issues.

“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,” it 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.”

It also said it was “resolutely opposed” to the long-standing surveillance “in the presence” of Chinese waters by US ships and aircraft.

US officials said the drone was a sovereign immune vessel clearly marked in English as US property and not to be removed from the water. While the drone and surveillance programme is unclassified, defence analysts said the US relied increasingly on the oceanographic data supplied by such drones to help track China’s growing and increasingly sophisticated fleet of submarines.

Wu Shicun, head of China’s government-affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies, told state-run tabloid the Global Times that the US drone was likely tracking Chinese submarine routes or monitoring construction activity on artificial islands China has built in the area.

Fairfax Media

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