China to return drone
U.S. “ocean glider” was seized Thursday; president-elect tweets, “Let them keep it!”
beijing» China said Saturday its military seized a U.S. Navy unmanned underwater glider in the South China Sea but it would give the drone back. But Presidentelect Donald Trump tweeted later that the Chinese government should be told “we don’t want the drone they stole back” and “let them keep it!”
This comes after United States officials had confirmed that they “secured an understanding” for the return of the device. Trump’s evening tweet may extend one of the most serious incidents between the American and the Chinese militaries in years.
The Chinese navy on Thursday seized the drone, which the Pentagon said was being operated by civilian contractors to conduct oceanic research. The U.S. lodged a formal diplomatic complaint and demanded the drone back.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun issued a statement late Saturday saying that a Chinese navy lifeboat discovered an unknown device in the South China Sea on Thursday.
“In order to prevent this device from posing a danger to the safe navigation of passing ships and personnel, the Chinese lifeboat adopted a professional and responsible attitude in investigating and verifying the device,” Yang said.
The statement said that after verifying that the device was an American unmanned submerged device, “China decided to transfer it to the U.S. through appropriate means.”
The U.S. said that “through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return” the unmanned underwater vehicle, according to a statement from Peter Cook, spokesman for U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
But Trump, after holding a rally to thank supporters for his election, took to Twitter to criticize the deal. “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back. Let them keep it!” the president-elect tweeted Saturday evening.
Earlier in the day, he blasted the seizure.
Misspelling “unprecedented,” he tweeted: “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.” He later reissued the tweet, correcting the spelling.
The U.S. said China’s “unlawful seizure” came in international waters. Yet China pointedly accused the U.S. of long sending ships “in China’s presence” to conduct “military surveying.”
“China is resolutely opposed to this and requests the U.S. stop such activities,” it said.
“China will continue to maintain vigilance against the relevant U.S. activities and will take necessary measures to deal with them.”
Earlier Saturday, China’s foreign ministry said the country’s military was in contact with its American counterparts on “appropriately handling” the incident, although it offered no details on what discussions were underway.
The drone was seized while collecting unclassified scientific data about 57 miles northwest of Subic Bay near the Philippines in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday.
“It is ours. It’s clearly marked as ours. We would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again,” Davis told reporters. He said the drone costs about $150,000 and is largely commercial, off-the-shelf technology.
The USNS Bowditch, which is not a combat ship, was stopped in international waters Thursday afternoon and recovering two of the gliders when the Chinese ship approached, Davis said.
The two vessels were within about 500 yards of each other.
He said the USNS Bowditch carries some small arms, but that no shots were fired.
According to the Pentagon, as the Chinese ship left with the drone, which is about 10 feet long, its only radio response to the U.S. vessel was “We are returning to normal operations.”
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the seizure of the glider occurred inside the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, not China, and appeared to be a violation of international law.
The USNS Bowditch, a T-AGS 60 Class Oceanographic Survey Ship, was recovering two drones on Thursday when a Chinese navy ship approached and sent out a small boat that took one of the drones, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.