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Sino-US relations

Chinese demands ‘to come with handover of seized US drone’

Beijing may insist US roll back surveillance in disputed waters amid fears of more tension during transition in Washington, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2016, 11:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 December, 2016, 2:53am

Beijing is expected to demand the United States scale down its ­surveillance in the South China Sea when it hands back a seized US underwater drone, observers said on Sunday.

It was also expected to seek an expansion in the code for unplanned military encounters in the disputed waters to cover drones like the one seized by a Chinese warship off the Philippine coast near Subic Bay on Thursday.

The defence ministry said late on Saturday that the US had ratcheted up tensions but China would return the drone belonging to the US oceanographic survey ship Bowditch, “in an appropriate manner”.

‘Let them keep it!’ Trump tweets new twist in China drone drama

The saga took another turn on Sunday when US president-elect Donald Trump tweeted: “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back – let them keep it.”

Yuan Zheng, a US affairs specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing would convey to Washington its dissatisfaction over the US’ close reconnaissance activities in the South China Sea.

Zhang Zhexin, a professor from the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said he ­expected it would take about 10 days for the drone to be returned.

“China is worried that there will be more action from the US during its power transition period,” he said. “Beijing will possibly talk to the US about expanding the code for unplanned encounters at sea to include unmanned underwater vehicles.”

The code includes a set of standard operational procedures ­designed to minimise the risks of unintended maritime encounters, but it does not have a procedure to deal with underwater drones.

The US had lodged a protest and demanded the return of the drone, which it said was “unlawfully” taken and was an unclassified ocean glider used to gather data on salinity. Beijing insisted the seizure was legitimate, and the drone might interfere with navigation and the safety of ­personnel.

Zhang Huang, a professor from the PLA National Defence University, said the unmanned underwater vehicle could be used to gather data on Chinese naval actions, and the navigation details of Chinese submarines, People’s Daily reported.

China seizes US underwater drone in South China Sea

Zhang Baohui, a China security specialist at Hong Kong’s ­Lingnan University, said the drone could be used to collect data on factors such as currents and salinity, as well as special ­sonar signals from Chinese nuclear submarines.

“Both uses have military applications. The first could be used to track possible routes by Chinese submarines,” he said.

“The second could be used to detect and trace Chinese nuclear submarines.

“The drone is part of the US’ anti-submarine ­warfare.”

Antony Wong Dong, a Macau-based military observer, said the data collected by the drone was crucial to the US to mapping military action in the South China Sea.

Drone incident highlights high-stakes rivalry in South China Sea

“If the US wants to step up surveillance against China, or even make a battle plan, it can use the updated data collected from those drones,” he said.

“The data will be useful for surveillance against Chinese submarines and for planning for US submarines in the area.”

Wong also said the seizure was a move by China to send a signal to Trump, who had made “tough remarks” against Beijing.

Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk