Beijing has returned a U.S. underwater drone seized last week in the South China Sea by a Chinese Navy vessel after “friendly” talks between the two countries, China’s Defense Ministry said in a short statement posted to its website Tuesday.
“After friendly consultations between the Chinese and U.S. sides, the handover work for the U.S. underwater drone was smoothly completed in relevant waters in the South China Sea at midday on Dec. 20,” the statement said.
The Pentagon confirmed the handover, but criticized the Chinese Navy over the move.
“The incident was inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement. “The U.S. has addressed those facts with the Chinese through appropriate military channels, and have called on Chinese authorities to comply with their obligations under international law.”
The statement also said that the U.S. would continue to investigate the incident “and address any additional findings with the Chinese.
The Pentagon said the drone had been received by the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Mustin guided-missile destroyer in roughly the same location where it was taken, about 50 nautical miles (93 km) from Subic Bay in the Philippines.
The drone was scooped up by the Chinese Navy in the strategic waterway on Thursday in a row that also drew in U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and further stoked tensions between the two rivals.
The U.S. said the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) had been operating in international waters.
The Chinese Defense Ministry said Saturday that 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.”
The Chinese side had criticized what it said were U.S. moves to dramatize the seizure and 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,” Yang said.
The incident drew criticism from Trump, who takes office Jan. 20, and has vowed to deal with Beijing in a more hardline 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 has been no evidence that this was the case.
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.
While the incident had stoked fears of rising tensions between Beijing and Washington ahead of Trump’s swearing in, Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said it was likely to prove merely a minor hurdle for the overall evolution of Sino-U.S. ties.
“I think it is no more than a speed bump,” Zhang said. “While the act by itself was unprecedented, both Beijing and Washington tried to tone down the incident. They did well together, resulting in the handover of the drone earlier today.
“While Trump tweeted angrily about this incident, it is unlikely that his administration will reset Sino-U.S. relations,” Zhang added, citing incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus’ comments Sunday that Trump will not revisit the one China policy.
“Sino-U.S. relations are largely shaped by the long-term national interests of both countries,” Zhang said. “It is thus relatively stable and not very susceptible to incidents like this.”
The incident was the first of its kind in recent memory, and took place 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 had viewed the Chinese move as serious since it had effectively taken U.S. military property.
The U.S. Defense Department said the Bowditch and the drone — reportedly an unclassified Teledyne-Webb Slocum G2 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.
Chinese state-run media said U.S. operations in the waters “demonstrates the country’s doubt toward and even hostility against China.”
“The fact that the U.S. released Bowditch … in the South China Sea was another example of its years-long attempt to keep a close watch over China,” the People’s Daily said in an editorial.
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 drone’s seizure and return also comes on the heels of a report released last week 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.
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