The incident took place in international waters in the South China Sea, a region Beijing claims as its own. The American ship, the USNS Bowditch, had stopped to pick up two underwater drones. A smaller boat then left a Chinese naval ship that had been shadowing the American vessel and seized one of the drones right in front of the American crew.
The underwater drones were unmanned, underwater vehicles. The American ship radioed the Chinese to inform them the drone was U.S. property, but the Chinese did not respond until its vessel was turning away.
“The UUV was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea,” the U.S. official said. “It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water – that it was U.S. property.”
It is common for the Chinese navy to follow oceanographic vessels on suspicion the American ships aren’t carrying out scientific tasks but rather are there to spy. According to the U.S. official, who declined to be named, the seized drone was monitoring ocean conditions.
The Pentagon said it has has issued a formal complaint, or demarche, demanding that the drone be returned. The incident took place Dec. 15 about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay.
China’s motivation for the theft of the vessel is unclear, but may have been intended to send a warning to President-elect Donald Trump. Trump has rankled Beijing with recent comments that indicate he will not respect the “one China policy,” which stipulates the U.S. recognizes Taiwan as a part of mainland China rather than an independent nation. The president-elect broke with decades of U.S. policy in accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen earlier this month. Trump has pushed back against criticism of the call, and Beijing said it was “seriously concerned” about the action and signaled as much to the White House.
A week after the call, China flew a nuclear-capable bomber flew outside the country’s internationally recognized border over the South China Sea. It passed over a number of islands claimed by various nations. Such actions are meant as a show of strength and a warning to other countries.