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China Tells Trump It Didn’t ‘Steal’ US Underwater Drone

REUTERS/Jerry Lampen/Files

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter

China fired back at President-elect Donald Trump for his weekend tweets on China’s arguably unlawful seizure of a U.S. naval research drone in the South China Sea.

“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act,” Trump tweeted Saturday. “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a response Monday.

“We really don’t like the word ‘steal’ — the word is extremely inaccurate,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday. “This situation is more like you found something on a street and you took a look at it and investigated to see if it belonged to someone who wanted it back.”

The drone was seized in the presence of the control ship, the U.S. naval oceanographic ship USNS Bowditch, which contacted the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warship over radio, only to have the Chinese crew ignore their demands.

The Pentagon revealed the drone was clearly marked as U.S. property.

Evidence suggests the move may have been calculated and China intentionally seized the drone over concerns the U.S. was conducting military surveillance in the South China Sea.

“It should be emphasized that the U.S. has for a long time been regularly sending ships and planes into Chinese waters for reconnaissance purposes. China is firmly opposed to these activities and demands the U.S. stop immediately,” Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesman Yang Yujun asserted Saturday. “China will remain vigilant to all U.S. activities and shall take necessary measures to respond.”

Ma Gang, a professor at the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University, called the Bowditch “infamous” and claimed the ship has been engaging in military surveillance in China’s waters since 2002.

“Oceanic data is crucial for ship formations, submarine routes and battle planning,” Ma explained to the China Daily. “Therefore, it is normal for the Chinese Navy to be suspicious of Bowditch’s activities given past experience.”

China is convinced the U.S. was spying on the country.

“Trump, who said ‘China steals’ their UUV, should notice that they are the thieves who are engaged in spying around our front door,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie told the Global Times.

Li argued the U.S. hyped up the situation because it is “aware that such spying activity is inappropriate.”

The military surveillance argument contradicts China’s assertions that it simply found an “unidentified device” and investigated it for identification and maritime safety purposes.

“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,” the MND argued.

China also claims that the seizure occurred in in “China’s jurisdictional waters.”

The Pentagon asserts the drone and the control ship were both operating legally in international waters 50 nautical miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines, likely outside of China’s nine-dashed line, a territorial demarcation that was discredited by an international arbitration tribunal in July.

In addition to concerns over U.S. Navy surveillance activities, the seizure appears be a message to both President Barack Obama and the incoming administration.

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

“Trump might eventually learn the hard way that China’s sovereignty is absolutely nonnegotiable,” Ma said.

“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’s commentary on the reasons behind the seizure of a U.S. Navy drone has varied greatly.

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