The USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, is seen in this undated US Navy handout photo. Photo: US Navy
A Chinese warship has seized an underwater drone deployed by a US oceanographic vessel in the South China Sea, triggering a formal diplomatic protest and a demand for its return, US officials said on Friday.
The drone was taken on Thursday, the first seizure of its kind in recent memory, about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay off the Philippines just as the USNS Bowditch was about to retrieve the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), officials said.
"The UUV was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea," one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It's a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water - that it was US property," the official said.
The drone was part of an unclassified program to collect oceanographic data including salinity, temperature and clarity of the water. The data can help inform US military sonar data since such factors affect sound.
The USNS Bowditch, a US Navy ship crewed by civilians that carries out oceanographic work, had already retrieved one of two of its drones, known as ocean gliders, when a Chinese Navy Dalang 3 class vessel took the second one.
The Pentagon confirmed the incident at a news briefing and said that the drone used commercially available technology and sold for about $150,000.
The US issued the formal demarche, as such protests are known, through diplomatic channels and included a demand that China immediately return the drone. The Chinese acknowledged it but have not responded, officials said.
"We call upon China to return our UUV immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the seizure "a remarkably brazen violation of international law."
US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus cited a "growing China" as one of the reasons that the Navy needed to expand its fleet to 355 ships, including 12 carriers, 104 large surface combatants, 38 amphibious ships and 66 submarines.
Although it's unclear what the motivation was for the Chinese, the seizing of the drone comes on the heels of other provocative incidents that have happened since President-elect Donald Trump received a congratulatory call with Taiwan's leader, a violation of the US's agreement with China's "One China policy". China publicly voiced their disapproval of that incident and contacted the White House at the time.
"The fact that the Chinese just went and scooped this thing out of the water -- it is a blatant action in my view, it's very confrontational," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This is a couple of notches up in terms of provocation."
"This shows how out-of-control the situation can potentially become in the South China Sea because of China's very expansive claim and the extent of the activity it's willing to undertake to assert its authority over waters it claims," said Michael Fuchs, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2013 to 2016 and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "It means that all sorts of activities that would have been previously mundane and accepted, such as scientific exploration in international waters in the South China Sea, become a possible flash point."
Days ago, Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, said that the US will keep challenging Beijing's "assertive, aggressive behavior in the South China Sea", warning Washington would not accept Chinese control of the region, despite Beijing's rapid development of artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
"We will not allow the shared domains to be closed down unilaterally, no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea," Harris said.
"We will cooperate where we can but we will be ready to confront where we must."