On Dec. 16, the U.S. Defense Department announced that it had issued a formal protest to China "demanding the return of an underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV) seized by a Chinese warship in the South China Sea." U.S. pundits and officials criticized China's action, and China's media and officials responded in kind. After several days of verbal tit-for tat, the Chinese warship returned the UUV. Why would China do such a thing and what was — and is — going on behind the scenes?

Let's be clear at the outset. The seizure of the UUV was certainly inappropriate and probably illegal — either as a simple theft or perhaps as a violation of the "sovereign immunity" of warships under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The U.S. military said the Bowditch — and the UUV — were carrying out scientific research in "international waters." According to U.S. Navy spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis "the drone was seized while collecting unclassified scientific data." The U.S. Defense Department said that "the incident was inconsistent with international law and standards of professionalism for conduct of navies at sea."