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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).

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