China said it would return a US navy drone seized in international waters in the South China Sea “in an appropriate manner” as both countries accused the other of ratcheting up tensions in the region.
In a statement issued on Saturday night, the Chinese defence ministry said it had taken the drone for verification and accused the United States of “making a fuss” over the incident.
According to the Pentagon, the US lodged a formal diplomatic protest and demanded the return of the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), which it said was “unlawfully” taken by a Chinese warship on Thursday near Subic Bay off the Philippines.
Trump waded into the debate on Saturday night, Beijing time, with an initially misspelled tweet saying China had stolen the drone in international waters in an “unpresidented” act, before he corrected his wording almost an hour later.
China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 17, 2016
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the incident took place when the US oceanographic survey ship Bowditch was about to retrieve the drone, an unclassified “ocean glider” used around the world to gather data on salinity and water temperature.
The seizure took place outside the “nine-dash line” on maps that shows Beijing’s claims to most of the contested waters.
Defence ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun dismissed the US allegations, insisting China had been “professional and responsible” to take the drone. “We had to examine and verify the device in a bid to avoid any harm it might cause to the safety of navigation and personnel,” he said in a statement issued late on Saturday night, adding that the drone would be returned “in an appropriate manner”.
He said China was strongly opposed to such reconnaissance activities and it was highly inappropriate for the US to make a fuss over the incident.
A Chinese Foreign ministry statement said: “According to [our] understanding, the US and Chinese sides are working on appropriately handling this matter through channels between the two militaries.”
A war of words erupted as Chinese analysts insisted the seizure was within Beijing’s right to defend itself against military intelligence gathering.
China wants to send out a signal that if you spy on us underwater and threaten our national security, we have measures to deal with it
“What was [the US military underwater drone] doing in the region? We’ll have to examine and decide by ourselves if it was indeed some sort of scientific experiment or military reconnaissance in such a pretext,” said Rear Admiral Yang Yi, the former head of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the PLA National Defence University.
Wu Shicun, president of the Chinese government-affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the incident showed that the two militaries had entered into a phase of underwater competition.
“China wants to send out a signal that if you spy on us underwater and threaten our national security, we have measures to deal with it. On the South China Sea issue, we took in humiliations with a humble view in past years. I think this era has finished.”
Analysts noted it was the first time tensions over regional maritime disputes had flared since the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July, which rejected Beijing’s claims to much of the South China Sea.
Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Beijing’s move was likely sending a signal to US president-elect Donald Trump before he was sworn in that “the US couldn’t challenge China’s core interests with impunity”.
“My guess is this is not the act of a rogue commander on a Chinese navy ship. We have seen tight control by (President) Xi Jinping over the military. I’m more inclined to see it as a deliberate act and as a signal,” she said.
South China Sea air strips’ main role is ‘to defend Hainan nuclear submarine base’A series of swaggering steps by Trump, including his groundbreaking telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and hawkish remarks on China, have already strained the largely smooth bilateral ties under President Barack Obama.
Former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, a top Trump adviser, described China’s move as a deliberate act to humiliate the US.
“This was in international waters. The American naval research vessel was in the process of recovering the drone. The Chinese vessel came up and put a smaller boat in the water and just took the thing away,” he told Fox News. “It’s the culmination of eight years of the Obama administration’s weakness all around the world.”
Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, an analyst at the Academy of Military Science, a PLA think-tank, said both sides would probably resolve the issue via negotiation.
“China would say, at least, you can’t behave in this way any more. … Then the two sides will enter negotiations. It will only be returned when some form of agreement is reached.”
Analysts said the incident would further strain the China-US relations.
Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the University of Sydney, said: “Against the background of rising tensions in the South China Sea and Trump’s increasingly hawkish comments on China policy, this incident will be serious test for US-China relations.”
Zhao also said its impact on the bilateral ties would largely depend on how negotiations were going to be conducted between the two sides as well as national sentiments and media response in China.
Additional reporting by Associated Press