Washington has protested to Beijing over a US Navy underwater drone being seized by the Chinese navy in the South China Sea, marking a sharp escalation in already rising tensions between the two countries.
A US defence official said the device was grabbed as it was being operated by the USNS Bowditch, a survey vessel.
The Obama administration issued a formal démarche after the incident, the most dramatic recent flashpoint between the US and China in the South China Sea, where disputes over islands and resources have become a geopolitical faultline and have prompted persistent friction between the two countries’ navies.
The seizure came days after president-elect Donald Trump appeared to challenge Beijing by speaking on the phone with the president of Taiwan and suggesting that he would consider abandoning US policy over the island if China did not make concessions to the US over other issues, including the South China Sea.
“This is the opening shot, the first part of the Chinese response to push back against Trump over Taiwan,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.
“It is likely that this was a very well choreographed decision from the top.”
US officials said that the Bowditch had been operating in international waters 50 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines and was doing “normal” survey operations.
The drone, a so-called “ocean glider” that is used to gather oceanographic data, had returned to the surface and was waiting to be retrieved by the Bowditch. At that time, a Chinese naval vessel launched a small boat that picked up the glider. A radio request to the Chinese to return the drone was ignored.
This is the opening shot, the first part of the Chinese response to push back against Trump over Taiwan
“We call upon China to return our UUV [drone] immediately and to comply with all of its obligations under international law,” said Peter Cook, Pentagon press secretary.
US officials believe the Chinese have deliberately tried to test the resolve of the past two incoming presidents. In 2001, less than three months after George W Bush took office, a collision between a US EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet led to the Chinese impounding the US aircraft and its crew for two weeks before the diplomatic incident was resolved.
Two months after Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, the USS Impeccable was harassed by a series of Chinese naval, coast guard and fishing vessels while conducting a surveillance operation in the South China Sea. The US issued a formal protest at the time about what it called “unprofessional” Chinese conduct, while the Chinese government denied the US claims.
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