The Pentagon says a Chinese warship has seized a US Navy underwater drone collecting unclassified data in international waters in the South China Sea.
The incident has prompted a formal démarche from the United States and a demand for its return.
It is the first such seizure in recent memory and took took place on 15 December northwest of Subic Bay, just as the USNS Bowditch – an oceanographic survey ship – was about to retrieve the unmaned underwater vehicle (UUV), a US official told Reuters.
“The UUV was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea,” the official said.
“It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water – that it was US property.”
Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the US is asking for the drone’s return.
The incident is likely to fray the already tense relations between US and China. Beijing was angered by President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to talk by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen earlier this month, and by his later comments that he did not feel “bound by a ‘One China’ policy” regarding the status of Taiwan — a protocol that the US has followed for decades.
Captain Davis said a civilian US Navy ship operated by the military’s Sealift Command was recovering two of the unmanned gliders about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay near the Philippines when the Chinese ship approached and took one of the small vessels. He says the Chinese ship acknowledged radio messages from the US ship, but did not respond to demands the glider be returned.
The Chinese have acknowledged the démarche but not responded to it.
“It is ours. It’s clearly marked as ours. We would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again,” said Captain Davis
The seized underwater drone was part of an unclassified programme to collect oceanographic data, including salinity, temperature and clarity of the water, according to a US official. Such data can help inform US military sonar data.