Why China’s Seizure Of US Navy Drone Set A Dangerous Precedent

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The Chinese navy’s unlawful seizure of a U.S. naval underwater drone and America’s muted reaction may be setting a dangerous precedent.

A Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy warship seized a U.S. Navy unmanned underwater vehicle in the South China Sea last Thursday. The device was taken in the presence of a U.S. naval oceanographic vessel attempting to retrieve it. While the seizure occurred in the highly-contested South China Sea, the Pentagon reported that both the drone and the accompanying ship were operating legally in international waters.

The Department of State and the Pentagon protested the illegal seizure and demanded its return. The unmanned device was returned Tuesday.

“There is no legal basis for China to seize [the device],” explained Julian Ku, a professor of constitutional law in the School of Law at Hofstra University.

China has tried several times to downplay the recent incident, encouraging the U.S. not to read too much into it and to avoid unnecessarily “hyping up” the situation, in an attempt to quietly establish new norms in the region in which China intends to exercise absolute authority.

China’s reaction to the incident is noteworthy.

China’s Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs argue that the Chinese navy found, rather than seized, the unmanned underwater vehicle.

The Ministry of National Defense 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,” MND spokesman Yu Yujun explained.

“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,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

“The U.S. Navy lost its drone,” argues Senior Captain Fan Jinfa, “It shouldn’t blame others for its mistake.” Fan accused the U.S. of engaging in “unprofessional behavior.”

Numerous other commentators repeated similar statements praising the Chinese navy and condemning the U.S. for its actions.

Not only did China deny any wrongdoing, but it blamed the U.S. and issued a stern warning.

“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 explained, “China will remain vigilant to U.S. activities and shall take necessary measures to respond.”

Furthermore, China attempted to legitimize its actions.

“The Chinese government, state media, and popular [People’s Liberation Army] commentators have sought not only to legitimate the seizure but portray it as a commendable action worthy of repetition under similar circumstances in the future, and even tout it as a standard operating procedure,” William Yale, an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, asserts.

“Chinese commentary not only legitimated China’s behavior but held it up as a sterling example to be imitated in the future,” he added.

Senior Captain Cao Weidong reportedly stated that the recent incident “lays down relevant operating standards for the occurrence of similar events in the future.”

“This is China showing that it is in the process of setting the rules in the South China Sea,” Alexander Vuving, an expert on Vietnam and the Asia Pacific at Center for Security Studies explained to The New York Times. “If China can get away with this incident with impunity, this will send a chilling message.”

Avoiding escalation, the Obama administration’s reaction to China’s seizure of U.S. naval equipment was “muted,” Euan Graham, the director of international security at the Lowy Institute, told NYT reporters.

“Attacks on remotely controlled vehicles — drones — may become a new currency for coercive diplomacy, enabling nations to challenge rivals without hurting an opponent’s military personnel — and so without risking significant escalation,” Erik Lin-Greenberg, a PhD candidate at Columbia University asserted in a Washington Post article Friday.

He referred to this type of situation as “the future of international conflict.”

The most recent encounter with China’s navy may have been the beginning of a problem that could persist throughout the next administration.

China’s response to the recent drone incident also indicates that China’s perceptions of its territorial waters are changing.

Chinese reports claim that the device was seized in “China’s jurisdictional waters;” however, Pentagon reports argue that the incident occurred 50 miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines, outside of China’s nine-dashed line, an irrelevant demarcation discredited by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague this past summer.

The argument suggests that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which are already quite extensive, are expanding.

The next U.S. administration may encounter additional flare ups with China at sea.

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