On Thursday, a Chinese submarine seized a submersible US naval drone in the international waters of the disputed South China Sea region. The drone, a five-foot-long, torpedo shaped ‘Slocum Glider’, was recording data for a naval research vessel when the incident occurred. The USNS Bowditch was within sight, roughly 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines, tracking the drone as it performed its mission of collecting data on water temperature, salinity, density, and other meteorological data. Drones such as this one help the US Navy to compile meteorological forecasts for mariners.
The Chinese ship refused to comply with the Bowditch when it initially requested that they return the drone. However, the Chinese government agreed to return the drone on Saturday.
US officials said it was unclear who authorized taking possession of the drone. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement:
“We have registered our objection to China’s unlawful seizure of a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle operating in international waters in the South China Sea. Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the [drone] to the United States.”
China’s Ministry of Defense said Saturday that they would return the drone in an “appropriate” manner. Yang Yujun, a spokesman for the ministry, said that the drone was seized “in order to prevent the device from harming the navigation safety and personnel safety of the ship.”
“The U.S. military has frequently dispatched naval vessels to carry out reconnaissance and military measurements in China’s water. China resolutely opposes this and urges the U.S. side to stop such activities.”
Later that evening, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back – let them keep it!” Beijing has yet to respond to these comments.
The incident comes after heightened tensions between the US and China surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign, in which he criticized China’s trade policies, and actions taken since his victory in November. On December 2nd, Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, upending about 4 decades of US policy that abided by Beijing’s “one China” doctrine. The phone call has suggested that Trump will take a hard line against China, calling into question whether incidents such as the seizure of the drone will become more common as tensions rise.