China Agrees To Return US Drone Unlawfully Seized In The South China Sea

Ryan Pickrell | China/Asia Pacific Reporter

China has agreed to return the US underwater drone its navy unlawfully seized in the South China Sea; however, it blames the U.S. for the incident.

The Ministry of National Defense (MND) said Saturday that China will return the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) that a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel stole from a U.S. naval oceanographic vessel operating in international waters Thursday.

The MND said that the Chinese navy detected an “unidentified device” in the South China Sea. “In order to prevent the device from endangering the navigation safety and the safety of personnel aboard passing ships, the Chinese ship adopted a professional and responsible attitude and moved to identify and verify the device.”

“After verification was completed, China decided to hand the device over to the U.S.,” MND spokesman Yang Yujun explained.

“Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV to the United States,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said.

The Chinese defense ministry slammed Washington for “inappropriately” and “regrettably” hyping up the problem, arguing that such actions are “not conducive to smoothly resolving problems.”

“It should be emphasized that the U.S. has for a long time been sending ships and planes into Chinese waters for reconnaissance purposes. China is firmly opposed to these activities and demands the U.S. stop immediately,” Yang asserted, “China will remain vigilant to U.S. activities and shall take necessary measures to respond.”

The MND’s explanation does not appear to line up with some of the other details of the incident, though.

The Pentagon states that the drone was operating legally in international waters and was clearly marked as U.S. property.

The UUV and the control ship, the USNS Bowditch, were working in an area about 50 miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines at the time of the seizure. Not only was the U.S. operating in international waters likely outside of China’s notorious nine-dashed line, a territorial demarcation which was discredited in July by an international arbitration tribunal, but the U.S. ship and drone were actually inside the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

As China has no jurisdiction in the area where the incident occurred, there was no legal justification for the seizure or the shadowing of a U.S. vessel by the Chinese navy.

Furthermore, the drone was conducting scientific research, not military or commercial surveillance, giving it protection under the provisions of international law.

China appears to have violated international law, and the purpose was to send a message to both the current U.S. president and the incoming president.

“If we need to take it, we’ll take it. (America) can’t stop us,” PLA Admiral Yang Yi told the Global Times.

“If Trump and the U.S. government dare challenge China’s policy line and core interests … their heads will be broken and bleeding,” he explained, “This first round is important if we want them to learn to behave themselves.”

A Chinese scholar at a state-sponsored think tank said that the era in which China bowed before the U.S. and humbly accepted humiliations is over.

The next U.S. administration will face a more assertive China determined to reset and restructure international and legal norms to suit its rapidly expanding national interests.

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