Chinese warship seizes US underwater drone in international waters
Official says drone deployed by American oceanographic vessel in South China Sea was taken by Chinese navy on Thursday
A Chinese navy warship has seized an underwater drone deployed by an American oceanographic vessel in international waters in the South China Sea, triggering a formal diplomatic protest and demand for its return from the United States, a US defense official told Reuters on Friday.
The incident – the first of its kind in recent memory – took place on Thursday north-west of Subic Bay just as the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, was about to retrieve the unmanned, underwater vehicle (UUV), the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“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.”
The Chinese seizure will add to concerns about China’s growing military presence and aggressive posture in the disputed South China Sea, including its militarization of maritime outposts.
A US thinktank reported this week that new satellite imagery indicated that China has installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.
The seized underwater drone was part of an unclassified program to collect oceanographic data, including salinity, temperature and clarity of the water, the official added.
Such data can help inform US military sonar data, since sound is affected by such factors.
The US issued the formal demarche, as such protests are known, through diplomatic channels and included a demand that China immediately return the underwater drone.
The Chinese have acknowledged the demarche but not responded to it, the official added.
The US ship had stopped to pick up two underwater drones, CNN reported. A Chinese ship that had been shadowing it put a small boat into the water and took one of the drones, according to the network.
The move comes after US president-elect Donald Trump called into question the longstanding US foreign policy of maintaining formal relations with Beijing instead of Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province. He also spoke directly with Taiwan’s president, the first such contact since 1979. Both moves have infuriated China.