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The Cable

China Seizes U.S. Navy Drone in In South China Sea

Beijing raises the stakes in a watery showdown.


On Friday, amid U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s tough talk on Beijing, a Chinese navy ship snapped up an unarmed U.S. underwater drone just 50 miles from Subic Bay, in the Philippines.

The move represents a brazen effort to further stake out China’s unilateral sway over the South China Sea, coming hard on the heels of new revelations that Beijing has sent more advanced weapons to its fake islands in the region. It also seems a deliberate riposte after the top U.S. admiral in the Pacific redoubled American commitment to free and open navigation in the crucial waterway.

A U.S. defense official said Friday that a Chinese naval vessel grabbed the drone when it was operating with the oceanographic survey ship USNS Bowditch not far from the Philippine capital. The drone was only about 500 yards away from the unarmed U.S. ship when it was seized. Despite immediate protests by U.S. forces, the Chinese slipped away.

“It is ours, and it is clearly marked as ours and we would like it back,” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. “And we would like this not to happen again.”

The Navy has over one hundred such gliders that can be deployed for up to a month at a time, transmitting oceanic data back to ships and ground stations. In a statement, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook added that “China unlawfully seized” the ocean glider, which was “conducting routine operations in accordance with international law.”

The Bowditch was in contact with the Chinese Navy ship throughout the incident, but American requests to return the vessel was ignored, a defense official confirmed. “The [drone] is a sovereign immune vessel of the United States,” Cook added. “We call upon China to return our UUV immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law.”

Seizing military goods belonging to another country in international waters is a particularly aggressive step, even for a country like Beijing, which rejects or systematically ignores huge chunks of international maritime law.

“This is borderline unbelievable. It is hard to imagine what possible rationale Beijing is going to come up with,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. AMTI produced the new surveillance photos this week showing Chinese air-defense installations on disputed atolls. Poling said that given where the incident occurred, “there is no conceivable map” which could justify its behavior.

On Thursday, in Sydney, Australia, U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris said, “We will not allow a shared domain to be closed down unilaterally no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea.” That prompted a rejoinder from nationalist media in Beijing and Chinese government officials.

The drone incident also comes at a complicated time for U.S.-Philippine relations, especially regarding China. The election of anti-American Rodrigo Duterte as Philippine president this May has soured ties between Manila and Washington and postponed defense exercises. On Thursday, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay said that the Philippines would no longer focus on the South China Sea in its relationship with China, essentially ceding terrain to Beijing just months after Manila won a landmark international arbitration case that pilloried China’s illegal behavior.

“The only way to move forward is to strengthen the other aspects of our relationship and also make sure that in the process, you are able to pursue confidence-building measures that will eventually allow you, in the future, to resolve your disputes peacefully,” he said, noting, “What will you do? Engage yourself in a war with China where there will be no winners? Nobody wants a war.”

The big hit to China’s reputation that everyone expected when it ignored the Hague ruling might come as a result of the drone snatching. Euan Graham, director of international studies at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, said on Twitter, “Stunt humiliates USN but hurts China’s reputation more. Does [Chinese Admiral] Wu Shengli want to command a rogue navy?”

It’s not the first time China has grabbed or threatened U.S. gear in the region. In the spring of 2001, a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan; the plane and its crew were held for months. In 2009, the U.S. Navy said that Chinese vessels were harassing its surveillance ships. In 2011, Vietnam accused China of cutting survey ships’ cables. More recently, Chinese naval vessels and aircraft have in many instances practiced unsafe maneuvers, threatening on-sea or mid-air collisions.

China’ silence so far on the motives behind the drone episode make it even harder for experts to understand.

“If this was planned to send a message, you have to say something for the message to get out,” said Poling. “All of this is bizarre, even by Chinese standards.”

Photo credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

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