China seizes US underwater drone in South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 December, 2016, 12:24am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 December, 2016, 9:58am

A Chinese Navy warship has seized an underwater drone deployed by an American oceanographic vessel in international waters in the South China Sea, triggering a formal diplomatic protest from the United States and a demand for its return.

The incident took place on December 15 northwest of Subic Bay off the Philippines just as the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, was about to retrieve the unmanned, underwater vehicle (UUV).

“We call upon China to return our UUV immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law,“ Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in the statement. The vehicle is an unclassified “ocean glider” system used around world to gather data on salinity, water temperature and sound speed.

The incident is the latest in a string of confrontations in the region, focusing renewed attention on the strained relations over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, an issue that President-elect Donald Trump will inherit when he takes office next month.

Trump, who campaigned on a promise to extract better terms for trade with China, already has provoked condemnation from Beijing for taking a phone call from Taiwan’s president and questioning the “One-China” policy for Taiwan and the mainland.

“At the very least this is the type of completely mundane sort of activity on the part of the United States or any other country operating freely in international waters that could lead to accidents or even potential conflict,” said Michael Fuchs, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2013 to 2016 and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement calling the incident “a remarkably brazen violation of international law.”

China claims more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, where it has constructed artificial islands and built up its military presence. On Thursday, China confirmed a report that it had installed weapons on the islands it has developed in the sea, with a Defence Ministry statement describing the arms as a “slingshot” to fend off threats, according to the New York Times.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said this week that “China appears to have built significant point-defence capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probably close-in weapons system” at each of its locations in the Spratly Islands.

The last major confrontation similar to Thursday’s happened in 2013, when a Chinese vessel cut in front of the USS Cowpens guided-missile cruiser from a distance of 100 yards, an incident that then-US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said was “irresponsible.” The two sides have since sought to improve communication and avoid such incidents.

While the US says its naval operations in the region are an exercise of the right to free passage in international waters, China calls the moves provocative and a challenge to its territorial claims. Other nations in the region claim parts of the same waters, a thriving fishing zone through which more than US$5 trillion of trade passes each year.

At the same time, the political balance on the issue may be changing. While the Philippines won a favourable ruling from an international arbitration court on its territorial dispute with China that was initiated by his predecessor, President Rodrigo Duterte said at a televised briefing in Davao City Friday that he would set aside that finding as he attempts to work with China.

In the incident on Thursday, a Chinese navy ship launched a small boat and retrieved the vehicle. The Navy ship, USNS Bowditch, made radio contact with the Chinese navy ship requesting the return of the vehicle, but the request was ignored, Cook said in the statement. He described the drone as a “sovereign immune vessel of the United States.”

The Chinese seizure will add to concerns about China’s growing military presence and aggressive posture in the disputed South China Sea, including its militarization of maritime outposts.

The seized underwater drone was part of an unclassified programme to collect oceanographic data, including salinity, temperature and clarity of the water, the official added.

Such data can help inform US military sonar data, since sound is affected by such factors.

The United States issued the formal demarche, as such protests are known, through diplomatic channels and included a demand that China immediately return the underwater drone.

The Chinese have acknowledged the demarche but not responded to it, the official added.

The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have competing claims in the South China Sea, which is laced with the world’s most heavily travelled international trade routes.

New satellite imagery made public Wednesday by a US-based think tank showed that China apparently has installed what appeared to be large anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems on seven islets in the Spratly chain.

While the United States takes no position on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, it has repeatedly stressed that all maritime claims must comply with international law.

The US military has conducted several “freedom of navigation” operations in which ships and planes have passed close to the sites Beijing claims.

Such missions have drawn howls of fury from China, which accuses Washington of provocation and increasing the risk of a military mishap.

Adding to the tension, Beijing is facing a new US president in Donald Trump, who has questioned longstanding US policy on Taiwan, called Beijing a currency manipulator and threatened Chinese imports with punitive tariffs.