China returns seized underwater US drone

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

Image caption

The oceanographic survey ship, USNS Bowditch, deployed the underwater drone

A US underwater drone seized by the Chinese navy in the contentious South China Sea has now been returned.

The drone was handed over some 92km north-west of Subic Bay in the Philippines, officials said.

China seized the vehicle in international waters, in one of the most serious confrontations between the powers in decades.

The US said it would continue to “fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea” where international law allows.

“After friendly consultations between the Chinese and US sides, the handover was smoothly completed at midday,” China’s defence ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Pentagon had said the drone, known as an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), was being used to carry out scientific research at the time it was captured.

The latest statement described the incident as inconsistent with international law and codes of conduct between navies at sea, and that it would continue to investigate.

China has claimed territorial rights over most of the South China Sea but its claims are disputed by several nations.

A Chinese Navy ship seized the unmanned drone 92km (57 miles) north-west of Subic Bay near the Philippines in the South China Sea on Thursday.

The craft was retrieved and examined to maintain the safety of passing vessels, China’s defence ministry said in a statement.

Although an agreement on the return of the drone was eventually reached, it did not come before sharp exchanges and a formal diplomatic complaint by the US.

US President-elect Donald Trump also accused the Chinese of “stealing”.

“We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back – let them keep it!” he tweeted.

China’s defence ministry later said that the vessel would be returned in an “appropriate manner”, calling the US response “unhelpful”.

Analysts believe this is likely to stoke US concerns about the growing military build-up by China in the South China Sea.

Read more on the South China Sea dispute

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The Philippines called the occurrence of the incident, which took place inside its exclusive economic zone, “very troubling” saying it increased the likelihood of “miscalculations that could lead to open confrontation” very near the Philippine mainland.

Relations between the US and China have been growing increasingly tense, with Mr Trump inflaming the Chinese by speaking on the phone earlier this month with the leader of Taiwan, breaking a long-standing US practice.

China has so far been restrained in its official responses to Mr Trump, choosing instead to stress the importance of Sino-US ties.

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