China re­turns US drone seized in South China Sea

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

China yes­ter­day handed back to the United States an un­der­wa­ter drone it had seized last week in an in­ci­dent that raised ten­sions in a re­la­tion­ship that has been tested by Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s sig­nals of a tougher pol­icy to­ward Beijing. Trump has riled the Chi­nese lead­er­ship by say­ing he might re­con­sider US pol­icy to­ward Tai­wan, the self-ruled is­land the main­land claims as its ter­ri­tory.

The Chi­nese navy ves­sel that seized the drone re­turned it near where it was seized, and it was re­ceived by the USS Mustin about 80 kilo­me­ters north­west of Su­bic Bay in the Philip­pines, Pen­tagon press sec­re­tary Peter Cook said in a state­ment. Cook said Wash­ing­ton con­sid­ered the seizure il­le­gal. “This in­ci­dent was in­con­sis­tent with both in­ter­na­tional law and stan­dards of pro­fes­sion­al­ism for con­duct be­tween navies at sea,” he said, ad­ding that the US has called on China to re­frain from “fur­ther ef­forts to im­pede law­ful US ac­tiv­i­ties.”

Warn­ings and re­bukes

The state­ment said the US would con­tinue to “fly, sail, and op­er­ate in the South China Sea wher­ever in­ter­na­tional law al­lows.” Such free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion mis­sions in which US ships sail near China’s ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands draw warn­ings and re­bukes from Beijing. A spokeswoman of China’s For­eign Min­istry said there was no ba­sis for the Pen­tagon’s as­ser­tion that the seizure was un­law­ful, though she didn’t fully ex­plain the po­si­tion, in­stead link­ing it to the US’s mil­i­tary pres­ence in the wa­ters, which Beijing con­sid­ers provoca­tive.

“We have been point­ing out that over a long time, the US has been send­ing air­craft and ves­sels to con­duct close-in re­con­nais­sance and mil­i­tary sur­veys in wa­ters fac­ing China, which poses threats to China’s sovereignty and se­cu­rity,” said Hua Chun­y­ing, the spokeswoman. “That is the root cause of the in­ci­dent,” she said, while call­ing for the US to stop such ac­tiv­i­ties. China’s de­fense min­istry said in a state­ment that it handed the drone back af­ter “friendly con­sul­ta­tions.” Chi­nese of­fi­cials say the drone was re­moved from the water to en­sure the safety of pass­ing ships, but do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal ex­perts have read the move as a warn­ing to Trump not to test Beijing’s re­solve over Tai­wan. Early this month, Trump broke pro­to­col by speak­ing with Tai­wanese Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen. He later said he did not feel “bound by a oneChina pol­icy” un­less the US could gain trade or other ben­e­fits from China. Beijing re­gards any ac­knowl­edge­ment that Tai­wan has its own head of state as a grave in­sult.

“China wants to send a mes­sage to the US side about how se­ri­ous the con­se­quences can be if sen­si­tive is­sues in Chi­naUS re­la­tions are han­dled uni­lat­er­ally and in­dis­creetly,” said Xiong Zhiy­ong, an in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions ex­pert at the China For­eign Af­fairs Univer­sity in Beijing. “The re­turn of the seized drone shows that China hopes the US will not pro­voke China on th­ese is­sues and en­gage in solv­ing is­sues through con­sul­ta­tion.”

The in­ci­dent un­der­scores how Trump will con­front as pres­i­dent an in­creas­ingly as­sertive China that wants to ex­tend its reach in the South China Sea, a strate­gi­cally vi­tal area through which about $5 tril­lion in global trade passes each year. Sev­eral of China’s smaller neigh­bors have protested China’s ter­ri­to­rial claims there and are closely watch­ing Trump’s han­dling of the dis­puted sea. The seizure of the drone fits into China’s broader strat­egy aimed at shap­ing the per­cep­tion that it is in con­trol of the South China Sea and will not back down, said Michael Raska, a mil­i­tary an­a­lyst at the S Ra­jarat­nam School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Sin­ga­pore.

“They use the South China Sea as po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and in­for­ma­tional means to project power and to in­flu­ence do­mes­tic and ex­ter­nal per­cep­tion that the South China Sea is ba­si­cally Chi­nese,” Raska said. “This puts the US and China into con­tend­ing tra­jec­to­ries, but nei­ther side has the strate­gic in­ter­est to es­ca­late be­yond th­ese lowlevel in­ci­dents.” The US said the drone was be­ing op­er­ated by civil­ian con­trac­tors col­lect­ing un­clas­si­fied sci­en­tific data in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters. — AP

In this un­dated file photo re­leased by the US Navy Visual News Ser­vice, the USNS Bowditch, a T-AGS 60 Class Oceano­graphic Sur­vey Ship, sails in open water. — AP

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