National Security

China agrees to return seized underwater U.S. drone, Pentagon says

The USNS Bowditch, a civilian U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship, sails in open water in this undated photo. U.S. crewmen were operating an underwater drone from the ship Thursday when a Chinese crew snatched the vessel in the South China Sea.
The USNS Bowditch, a civilian U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship, sails in open water in this undated photo. U.S. crewmen were operating an underwater drone from the ship Thursday when a Chinese crew snatched the vessel in the South China Sea. AP

China has agreed to return a U.S. Navy underwater drone that it seized in a contested area of the South China Sea while a U.S. crew watched, the Pentagon said Saturday.

“Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV (underwater unmanned vehicle) to the United States,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement.

Cook called China’s capture of the drone an “unlawful seizure.”

Crew members in a small boat dispatched from a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessel stole the unmanned vehicle Thursday as U.S. crew members remotely operating the drone from aboard the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic vessel, prepared to retrieve it themselves, Pentagon officials said. The incident occurred about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines.

The Pentagon reported the seizure Friday.

U.S. officials said the drone was conducting routine operations, specifically mapping the sea floor and collecting oceanographic data, although outside analysts said the vehicle may have been charting submarine routes used by China as it tries to exert naval control of the South China Sea, one of the globe’s most transited sea routes.

The seizure threatened to unleash new tensions between the two countries, already highly charged amid a series of statements from President-elect Donald Trump.

Trump weighed in on the drone seizure in an early Saturday tweet to his more than 17 million followers.

“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters -- rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act,” Trump tweeted.

Trump irritated China two weeks ago by speaking by telephone with the president of Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. Last week, Trump criticized China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, where it was built up artificial reefs and placed anti-missile systems on them in an effort to expand its maritime control.

In a press conference Friday, President Barack Obama suggested that Trump should “think it through” before changing a decades-old U.S. policy toward Taiwan in a way that might agitate China.

“The idea of ‘one China’ is at the heart of their conception as a nation. And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what the consequences are, because the Chinese will not treat that the way they will treat some other issues,” Obama said.

“This goes to the core of how they see themselves, and their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant. That doesn’t mean you have to adhere to everything that’s been done in the past…it does mean that you have to think it through,” he added.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4

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