U.S., China Still Negotiating Return of ‘Illegally’ Seized Undersea Drone

Incident in South China Sea ignites criticism of 'tepid' Obama foreign policy

USNS Bowditch
USNS Bowditch / Photo via U.S. Navy

U.S. officials are still negotiating the return of an unmanned oceanic drone seized by the Chinese navy last week.

The Pentagon on Monday said that talks between U.S. and Chinese officials through multiple channels, including military-to-military conversations, on the logistics of the drone's return are still ongoing.

"We continue to engage with Chinese officials on the details and timing of the safe return of the UUV [unmanned underwater vehicle]. Those conversations are ongoing," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters Monday afternoon, reiterating the characterization of the drone seizure as "illegal."

"Our view is that this was seized illegally," Cook said. "We seek its return and that's what we are trying to execute right now."

The update comes four days after Chinese navy personnel seized the drone in international waters on Dec. 15. The Pentagon publicly confirmed the incident on Friday and appealed to China to return the drone.

A Chinese navy vessel seized the unmanned underwater vehicle last Thursday while it was conducting routine, unclassified operations in international waters northwest of the Subic Bay, in the South China Sea.

The undersea drone was about to be retrieved by the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship, when a small boat launched by the Chinese navy ship came up alongside the American vessel and took the device. U.S. officials initially made radio contact with the Chinese ship to request the return of the drone but were ignored.

The incident has sparked criticism of the Obama administration's foreign policy vis-à-vis China, which some say has enabled Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who specializes in Chinese political and security affairs, characterized the incident as an effort by China to establish a "new normal" before President-elect Donald Trump assumes office based on the lack of response by the United States to Beijing's past actions.

"[The] tepid response thus far only confirms Chinese assessment," Cheng told the Washington Free Beacon by email. 

"Allies and observers will find it hard not to conclude this represents another diminishment of American authority in the region," Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the New York Times. 

Trump, who has indicated he will take a harder line on China when he assumes office, reacted angrily to the incident over the weekend, accusing China of stealing the drone. "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back," the president-elect tweeted Saturday evening. "Let them keep it!"

A spokesman for China's defense ministry said late Saturday that it would return the drone to the United States in an appropriate manner but did not signal when or how it would happen. Yang Yujun, the spokesman, accused the U.S. of "hyping up" the incident.

The Defense Department said over the weekend that it had reached an agreement for the drone's return through direct engagement with Chinese authorities.

Meanwhile, China's foreign ministry said on Monday that the Chinese and American militaries had engaged in "unimpeded" discussions about the matter but offered no details on the vehicle's return.

"What I can tell you is that at present, China and the United States are using unimpeded military channels to appropriately handle this issue," Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, told reporters at a briefing Monday. She rejected Trump's characterization of the drone as stolen.

"The key is that China's navy had a responsible and professional attitude to identify and ascertain this object," Hua said. "If you discover or pick something up from the street you have to examine it and if somebody asks you for it you have to work out if it's theirs before you can give it back."

The incident took place one day after Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, underlined the American military presence and resolve in the Asia-Pacific during remarks in Sydney, Australia, and identified Russia and "an increasingly assertive China" as major challenges.

"Both Moscow and Beijing have choices to make," Harris said last Wednesday. "They can choose to disregard the rules-based international order or they can contribute to it as responsible stakeholders."

The incident occurred in the South China Sea about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, which is off the coast of the Philippines.

Filipino Defense Ministry Delfin Lorenzana said that he was troubled by the incident.

"Not only does it increase the likelihood of miscalculations that could lead to open confrontation very near the Philippine mainland but the commission of activities other than innocent passage which impinge upon the right of the Philippines over the resources in its EEZ [exclusive economic zone] are violations of the Philippines rights over its EEZ," Lorenzana said.

The U.S. Navy has routinely sailed warships close to islands and features claimed by China in the South China Sea, exercising the right to freely navigate through those waters. The operations have drawn ire from China, which claims most of the South China Sea as its territory despite an international tribunal ruling in July that the territorial claims have no historical or legal basis. Islands in the South China Sea are claimed by several other Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines.

"China resolutely opposes these activities, and demands that the U.S. side should stop such activities. China will continue to be vigilant against the relevant activities on the U.S. side, and will take necessary measures in response," Yang, the Chinese defense ministry spokesman, said Saturday.

U.S. efforts have not deterred China's island-building campaign in the South China Sea. Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released an analysis showing that Beijing had deployed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on seven artificial islands it has built up in the region.

The Chinese navy took the drone in international waters and outside the so-called "nine-dash line" that Beijing claims encircles its territory in the South China Sea.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, labeled the seizure a "flagrant violation of the freedom of the seas" indicative of China's assertive behavior in the region.

"This brazen provocation fits a pattern of increasingly destabilizing Chinese behavior, including bullying its neighbors and militarizing the South China Sea. And this behavior will continue until it is met with a strong and determined U.S. response, which until now the Obama administration has failed to provide," McCain said Friday.

"Freedom of the seas and the principles of the rules-based order are not self-enforcing. American leadership is required in their defense. But that leadership has been sorely lacking," McCain said.