China responded with mixed messages to U.S. complaints that the Chinese navy unlawfully seized U.S. naval equipment in the South China Sea.
A People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel stole a U.S. underwater research drone Thursday, triggering a strong protest from both the Department of State and the Pentagon.
“It is ours. It’s clearly marked as ours. We would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, stated Friday. “The [unmanned underwater vehicle] is a sovereign immune vessel of the United States. 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.
China acknowledged U.S. complaints Saturday.
“According to our understanding, the U.S. and Chinese sides are working on appropriately handling this matter through channels between the two militaries,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Associated Press.
“China has received the U.S. request to return the device, all communication lines are open between the relevant departments of the two sides, and I believe this matter will obtain a smooth resolution,” a PLA source explained to the Global Times.
The PLA justified the navy’s actions by calling the drone an “unidentified device,” which it determined needed to be inspected for maritime safety purposes.
“It is not the first time that the U.S. has deployed a drone in the South China Sea area, but it is the first time the Chinese military has seized it. There must be a reason for it…It could have threatened the interests of China’s islands, or China’s ships and submarines. It must have been a threat to Chinese interests, thus causing the seizure,” said Zhao Xiaozhuo, the director and a senior colonel at the Center on China-America Defense Relations at PLA think tank the Academy of Military Science.
There are noticeable holes in China’s argument though.
“There is no legal basis for China to seize [the drone],” explained Julian Ku, a professor of Constitutional Law in the School of Law at Hofstra University.
The seizure occurred in international waters likely outside of China’s nine-dashed line, which is less relevant as a demarcation given that it was discredited by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in July.
There was also no justification for the Chinese navy to shadow the USNS Bowditch, the oceanographic vessel which was operating the underwater drone at the time of the seizure, for it was operating in the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), where China does not have jurisdiction.
Even if the Bowditch had been in China’s territorial waters, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) offers immunity to “warships and other government ships operated for non-commercial purposes.”
The drone was conducting routine operations, specifically mapping the sea floor and collecting oceanographic data, not military or commercial surveillance.
China’s seizure of the UUV seems to be a clear violation of international law, one intended to send a message.
“If we need to take it, we’ll take it. (America) can’t stop us,” said PLA Admiral Yang Yi, who revealed an alternative explanation for China’s actions.
“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.”
Yang blasted U.S. Admiral Harry Harris for his “hysterical shouting” about America’s willingness to “confront” China in the South China Sea.
“It’s natural for us to take possession of and research for a bit these types of things that America sends to our doorstep,” Yang commented, “The louder they shout, the more their protests ring hollow.”
“On the South China Sea issue, we took in humiliations with a humble view in past years. I think this era has finished,” said Wu Shicun, president of the Chinese government-affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies.
China appears to be throwing down the gauntlet on the South China Sea and other relevant issues before President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump.
“China is a dragon, and the U.S. is an eagle, remarked Jin Canrong, a Chinese professor in the School of International Relations at Renmin University of China, “When the dragon awakes, everything around it becomes food.”
“Given the importance of the relation between the United States and China, given how much is at stake, in terms of the world economy, national security… China’s increasing role in international affairs, there’s probably no bilateral relationship that carries more significance,” Obama said at a press conference Friday.
“There’s also the potential if that relationship breaks down or goes into a full conflict mode that everybody’s worse off,” he added.
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