WASHINGTON – China returned the United States Navy underwater research drone Monday it “unlawfully” seized last week, after what China described as friendly talks between the nations.
The seizure of the drone on Thursday triggered a diplomatic protest from the U.S. government and a request for its return, while President-elect Donald Trump suggested China keep the unmanned underwater vehicle, otherwise known as an ocean glider.
The Pentagon maintained Monday that the U.S. Navy ocean glider, which is used to collect unclassified data on the water around it, was completing a pre-programmed route “conducting routine operations in the international waters of the South China Sea in full compliance with international law.”
The Chinese navy vessel that seized the drone returned it near where it had been taken, about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay in the South China Sea, and it was received by the USS Mustin, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
“This incident was inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea. The U.S. has addressed those facts with the Chinese through the appropriate diplomatic and military channels, and have called on Chinese authorities to comply with their obligations under international law and to refrain from further efforts to impede lawful U.S. activities,” Cook said.
China’s Foreign Ministry has said that the seizure was not intentional, but that the Chinese navy picked up the ocean glider “in order to prevent this [unidentified] device from posing danger to the safe navigation of passing ships and personnel.”
“After identifying the device as a [unmanned underwater vehicle] from the U.S., the Chinese side decided to hand it over to the U.S. side in an appropriate manner,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Monday, according to a transcript of a Monday news conference.
The Pentagon said last week that the research vessel that was retrieving the ocean glider was within about 500 yards of the Chinese ship and made radio contact, but their request to return the glider was ignored. The glider was also marked as belonging to the U.S., according to the Pentagon.
Hua continued that China “is firmly opposed to the frequent appearance of U.S. military aircraft and vessels in waters facing China for close-in reconnaissance and military surveys,” saying that such activities pose a “threat to China’s sovereignty and security.”
“We require the U.S. side to stop such activities. The Chinese side will stay vigilant about that,” she said.
The Pentagon has not indicated that there will be any change in practice following the incident, but rather that the U.S. “will continue to fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea wherever international law allows, in the same way that we operate everywhere else around the world.”
“The U.S. remains committed to upholding the accepted principles and norms of international law and freedom of navigation,” Cook said in the statement.
The South China Sea, through which much of the world’s trade passes though and huge untapped oil and gas reserves are thought to be, is an area of contention. China claims swaths of it and has built up seven artificial islands into outposts outfitted with weapons, but its claims conflict with several other nations. The United States does not take a side in the claims, but conducts operations to preserve freedom of navigation in the area.