What an unmanned US Navy drone looks like. Photo: US Navy
China's Defense Ministry said that it has been in talks with the US about returning an underwater drone taken by a Chinese naval vessel in the South China Sea, but added that the US did not help by "hyping up" the issue.
The drone was taken on Thursday — the first seizure of its kind in recent memory — about 50 nautical miles north-west of Subic Bay off the Philippines, just as the USNS Bowditch was about to retrieve the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), US officials said.
The Defense Ministry said that a Chinese naval vessel discovered a piece of "unidentified equipment" and checked it to prevent any navigational safety issues, before discovering it was a US drone.
China said that it seized the drone to ensure "the safe navigation of passing ships", a Defense Ministry spokesman said.
"In order to prevent this device from posing a danger to the safe navigation of passing ships and personnel, the Chinese lifeboat adopted a professional and responsible attitude in investigating and verifying the device."
"China decided to return it to the US side in an appropriate manner, and China and the US have all along been in communication about it," the ministry said on its website.
Without directly saying whether the drone was operating in waters China considers its own, the ministry said that US ships and aircraft have for a long period been carrying out surveillance and surveys in "the presence" of Chinese waters.
China will remain on alert for these sorts of activities and take necessary steps to deal with them, the ministry said without elaborating.
The US has maintained that the drone was operating lawfully.
"The UUV was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea," a US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
China has rapidly expanded its undersea fleet in recent years, causing the US to intensify its tracking efforts and Beijing to search for ways to evade detection. Chinese attack submarines have ranged far into the Indian and Pacific oceans, according to US officials. They expect that Beijing will soon begin patrols by submarines bearing nuclear missiles, most likely in the South China Sea.
China's foreign ministry said in a brief statement on Saturday that China and the US were "handling the issue appropriately through bilateral military channels".
Wu Shicun, president of the Chinese government-affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies, also said that 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."
That location, analysts said, suggests the interception is a rare, possibly unprecedented, instance of China directly impeding US naval surveillance in the disputed waters.
President-elect Donald Trump criticized the seizure on Saturday, days after provoking Beijing's ire by suggesting his administration may abrogate a decades-long agreement on the status of Taiwan if Beijing doesn't make concessions to US interests.
"China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters—rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act," Trump wrote in a Twitter message. His original tweet on the subject on Saturday called the seizure an "unpresidented act", but a replacement message corrected the spelling error.
Later on Saturday, he wrote another Twitter message saying: "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!"
Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that Beijing's move was likely sending a signal to Trump before he was sworn in that "the US couldn't challenge China's core interests with impunity".
Trump has previously threatened to declare China a currency manipulator and force changes in US-Chinese trade policy, which he says has led to the greatest theft of American jobs in history.