China will return a U.S. drone that was scooped up by its navy in the disputed South China Sea, both countries confirmed Saturday as the row drew in U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
“Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV to the United States,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement issued Saturday, referring to the unmanned underwater vehicle the U.S. said had been operating in international waters.
In a statement posted to its website, China’s Defense Ministry said it would hand over the drone “in an appropriate manner,” without giving a time frame.
Defense Ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun said a Chinese naval lifeboat had taken the drone “in order to prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels.”
Yang confirmed that both sides have been maintaining communication on the issue, but criticized what he said were U.S. moves to dramatize the seizure, calling that alleged hype inappropriate and not conducive toward settling the issue.
Yang also pointedly accused the U.S. of “frequently” dispatching vessels and aircraft to carry out “close-in reconnaissance and military surveys within Chinese waters.”
“China resolutely opposes these activities, and demands that the U.S. side should stop. … China will continue to be vigilant against the relevant activities on the U.S. side, and will take necessary measures in response,” he added.
The incident drew criticism from Trump, who takes office Jan. 20, and has vowed to deal with Beijing in a more hard-line manner.
Misspelling “unprecedented,” Trump tweeted Saturday: “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.”
He later reissued the tweet, correcting the spelling to “unprecedented.”
After China said it would return the drone, Trump spokesman Jason Miller tweeted a link to a news story detailing the announcement, saying: “@realdonaldtrump gets it done.”
Despite the apparent claim that Trump played a role in securing the drone’s return, there is no evidence that this was the case. Media reports said negotiations took place in Beijing during the overnight hours in the United States.
Nearly 11 hours after his first China tweet, Trump delivered another dig at China.
“We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!” he wrote. It was unclear what the president-elect meant by this statement.
Trump has criticized Beijing over its moves in the South China Sea and the nearly four-decade-old U.S. policy of recognizing Taipei as part of “one China,” including accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen — a move believed to be a first by an incoming or sitting U.S. leader.
Thursday’s seizure had prompted a formal diplomatic protest and a demand for the drone’s return Friday, further exacerbating rising tensions between Beijing and Washington.
The incident was also the first of its kind in recent memory, and took place about 50 nautical miles (93 km) from Subic Bay in the Philippines as the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy survey ship, was about to retrieve the UUV.
The Pentagon said the drone used commercially available technology that sold for about $150,000. Still, it viewed the Chinese move as serious since it had effectively taken U.S. military property.
“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 Capt. Jeff Davis said, adding that the incident had occurred within a 500-yard (457-meter) area.
The U.S. Defense Department said the Bowditch and the drone — an unclassified “ocean glider” system used around the world to gather military oceanographic data such as salinity, water temperature, and sound speed — were conducting routine operations in accordance with international law when a Chinese Navy Dalang-3 submarine rescue vessel launched a small boat and intercepted the UUV.
The Pentagon said the Bowditch made contact with the Chinese Navy ship via bridge-to-bridge radio to request the return of the UUV. This contact was acknowledged by the Chinese vessel, but the request was ignored.
“As (the Chinese ship) went sailing off into the distance, (it) said, ‘We are returning to normal operations,’ ” Davis said.
Experts said the seizure would add to growing U.S. concerns over China’s increasingly bellicose moves in the region.
“This is very serious,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor and Asia expert.
“The Chinese government habitually does not link their actions with specific prior acts by the other side, and the American mainstream media has been far too quick to link it to Trump’s behavior, which would be more likely to elicit Chinese pressure on Taiwan.”
Rather than a reaction to Trump’s Taiwan call, Dreyer said, the seizure was likely an attempt by Beijing to more vociferously express its objections to American surveillance efforts in the region.
“The Chinese have frequently objected to U.S. ships and planes … in the South China Sea, so I consider it a reaction to that — the People’s Liberation Army Navy has been shadowing the Bowditch, among other ships, for several years now,” Dreyer added.
Beijing claims most of the strategic waterway, through which more than $5 trillion in annual trade passes. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims. It has reclaimed more than 1,280 hectares (3,200 acres) of land on seven features it occupies in the disputed Spratly chain. In July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected China’s expansive claims to much of the waters, a ruling Beijing criticized as “waste paper.”
The last major confrontation between the U.S. and China similar to Thursday’s happened in 2013, when a Chinese ship nearly collided with the USS Cowpens guided-missile cruiser after cutting in front of it from a distance of just 100 yards (91 meters).
The move also comes on the heels of a report released Wednesday detailing a “significant” build-up by China of anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on all seven of its man-made islands in the strategic waterway’s Spratlys.
That revelation came despite a pledge last year by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to “militarize” the islands.
Beijing said it was “legitimate and lawful” for it to place defensive military equipment on islands where it had “indisputable sovereignty.”
“If someone was at the door of your home, cocky and swaggering, how could it be that you wouldn’t prepare a slingshot?” the Chinese Defense Ministry said Thursday in response to the report. The comments were in reference to U.S. “freedom of navigation” operations in the waters that have angered China. The last such operation came in October.
With Trump set to take office in just over a month, the charged atmosphere is unlikely to abate any time soon.
However the U.S. chooses to respond, said Dreyer, “the Chinese ‘salami’ tactics will have taken another slice off U.S. claims on freedom of navigation — and simultaneously humiliated the U.S.
“In essence, the Obama administration has already ceded control of the South China Sea to the Chinese,” Dreyer added. “This will just be confirmation.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.