China, US militaries ‘in talks’ over underwater drone seizure

USNS BowditchImage copyright
US Navy

Image caption

The USNS Bowditch was in the region to conduct research

Military officials from China and the US are in talks over the return of an underwater drone seized by the Chinese in international waters, China says.

The Chinese navy seized the US research vessel in the South China Sea on Thursday.

The incident – among the most serious between the two powers in years – took place just as oceanographic ship the USNS Bowditch was about to retrieve it.

The device was being used to carry out scientific tests, US officials say.

China confirmed the talks in a brief statement on Saturday.

“According to [our] understanding, the US and Chinese sides are working on appropriately handling this matter through channels between the two militaries,” China’s foreign ministry said.

Pentagon spokesman Capt Jeff Davis said the unmanned drone was being operated by civilian contractors to conduct oceanic research.

Mr Davis said a formal diplomatic complaint had been issued over the seizure and demanded that China return the device.

He said: “It is ours. It’s clearly marked as ours. We would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again.”

The drone was seized 92km (57 miles) north-west of Subic Bay near the Philippines in the South China Sea. China has claimed rights over parts of the region but its claims are disputed.

Relations between the two powers had already been tested by President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to speak on the phone earlier this month with the leader of Taiwan, breaking a long-standing US practice on the China-Taiwan dispute.

On Saturday Mr Trump accused China of “stealing” the drone in a “unprecedented” act. But he was mocked by Twitter users for misspelling the word.

Observers said the seizure of the drone was the most significant military incident between the two countries since a 2001 mid-air collision between a US Navy surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet that led to the death of a Chinese pilot.

‘A remarkably brazen violation’

The seizure will likely add to US concerns about the growing military build-up by China in the South China Sea.

A US think tank reported this week that aerial imagery shows that China has installed weaponry along seven artificial islands they have built at sea, despite US protests.

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Getty Images

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The S China Sea has become a flashpoint between the two countries

In November 2015, two US B-52 bomber planes flew over the man-made islands, known as the Spratly Islands.

Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, called the seizure “a remarkably brazen violation of international law”.

Senior Republican Senator John McCain said the US should not tolerate “such outrageous conduct”, adding that “this brazen provocation fits a pattern of increasingly destabilizing Chinese behaviour, including bullying its neighbours and militarising the South China Sea”.


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