Chinese Navy Steals US Underwater Drone In South China Sea

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South China Sea
China's People's Liberation Army naval frigate

A US oceanographic vessel had its underwater research drone “unlawfully” seized by a Chinese warship as it was being recovered in international waters in the South China Sea, defence officials announced Thursday.

The Daily Express reports:

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

The incident has triggered a formal demand from the US for the drone’s return, according to a defence official.

The US research vessel had tried to retrieve the glider, but the Chinese ship – which US officials believe was already shadowing the USNS Bowditch – swooped in and “unlawfully retrieved it.”

A US defence official said: “It was taken.

“The UUV was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea.

“It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water – that it was US property.”

Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed the US has issued a formal diplomatic complaint and is asking for the drone’s return.

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

The Pentagon also revealed the vessel used commercially available technology and sold for about £120,000.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said China would have a hard time explaining its actions.

“This move, if accurately reported, is highly escalatory, and it is hard to see how Beijing will justify it legally

The drone, dubbed a “naval glider”, was being used as part of an unclassified program to collect oceanographic data, including salinity, temperature and clarity of the water, the official added.

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

The Bowditch was able to establish bridge-to-bridge communications with the Chinese Navy.

However they responded to say they will now be returning to normal operations and then left the area.

The issue is now being addressed through diplomatic channels, the official confirmed.

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

China asserts its territorial claims over a string of islands in the South China Sea, where it has built up military grade airstrips, dredged harbours and other infrastructure.

Earlier this week, a US think tank confirmed that new satellite imagery indicated that China has installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven artificial islands it has built in the ocean.

And while China claims its activities are ‘routine’, in November a nuclear-capable bomb was flown over the South China Sea by Chinese officials.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said: “If China’s building normal facilities and deploying necessary territorial defensive facilities on its own islands is considered militarisation, then what is the sailing of fleets in the South China Sea?

“We hope countries concerned could respect the efforts of China and ASEAN members, and maintain the positive momentum of the South China Sea situation.“

Edmondo Burr
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BA Economics/Statistics CEO