The USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, is seen in this undated U.S. Navy handout photo. Picture: VIA REUTERS
The USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, is seen in this undated U.S. Navy handout photo. Picture: VIA REUTERS

The Pentagon demanded that China return a U.S. Navy underwater drone captured in international waters in the South China Sea, a confrontation likely to exacerbate tensions in a region where China is asserting greater control and expanding military installations.

A Chinese naval ship unlawfully seized the small unmanned vehicle Thursday while the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy survey ship, was collecting it in a routine operation 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines, according to a Defense Department statement.

While the motive for the move wasn’t immediately clear, some analysts said it may have been a response to comments criticizing China from U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Regardless of the reason, the capture marked a departure from past Chinese behavior because it occurred well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“We call upon China to return our UUV immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement Friday. The unmanned underwater vehicle is an unclassified “ocean glider” system used around world to gather data on salinity, water temperature and sound speed, the Pentagon said.

China had salvaged an unidentified device from the South China Sea and was trying to verify the item because of navigation safety concerns, the Global Times, a state-run newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, reported Saturday, citing a Chinese official it didn’t name. China had received a request from the U.S. to return the device and the matter should be resolved smoothly, the official said.

The incident, the latest in a string of confrontations in the region, focuses renewed attention on strained relations over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, an issue that Trump will inherit when he takes office next month. The incoming president, who campaigned on a promise to extract better trade terms with China, has provoked Beijing’s ire since the election by taking a phone call from Taiwan’s president and criticizing China for building a “massive military complex”at sea.

“China is very sensitive about unmanned underwater vehicles because they can track our nuclear ballistic missile submarines fleet,” said retired Major General Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at Beijing-based research group the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association. “If one from the Bowditch can be detected and even snatched by a Chinese naval ship, it shows it’s getting too close to the sensitive water areas.”

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t immediately return an e-mail requesting comment.

‘Blatant Action’
“The fact that the Chinese just went and scooped this thing out of the water -- it is a blatant action in my view, it’s very confrontational,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This is a couple of notches up in terms of provocation.”

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, where it has constructed artificial islands and built up its military presence. On Thursday, China confirmed a report that it had installed weapons on the islands it has developed in the sea, with a Defense Ministry statement describing the arms as a “slingshot” to fend off threats, according to the New York Times.

Guided-Missile Cruiser
The nearest disputed area of the sea from the latest incident is Scarborough Shoal, about 150 nautical miles from Subic Bay. The last major confrontation between the U.S. and China similar to Thursday’s happened in 2013, when a Chinese vessel cut in front of the USS Cowpens guided-missile cruiser from a distance of 100 yards, an incident that then-U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called “irresponsible.” The two sides have since sought to improve communications with the intent of avoiding such incidents.

The U.S. has continued to conduct what it calls freedom-of-navigation exercises, deploying vessels through the sea to underscore the right to free passage in international waters. China calls the moves provocative and a challenge to its territorial claims. Other nations in the region claim parts of the same waters, a thriving fishing zone through which more than $5 trillion of trade passes each year.

‘Very Expansive Claim’
“This shows how out-of-control the situation can potentially become in the South China Sea because of China’s very expansive claim and the extent of the activity it’s willing to undertake to assert its authority over waters it claims,” said Michael Fuchs, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2013 to 2016 and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “It means that all sorts of activities that would have been previously mundane and accepted, such as scientific exploration in international waters in the South China Sea, become a possible flash point.”

So far, China had been measured in its response to Trump after he upended more than four decades of diplomatic protocol by speaking by phone with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen earlier this month. China claims Taiwan as a province, and the U.S. has maintained only unofficial ties with it as part of an agreement to sever formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979.

After the call with Tsai, Trump took to Twitter and the airwaves, accusing China of devaluing its currency and saying that his support for the “One-China” policy governing relations with Taiwan will hinge on cutting a better deal on trade.

‘Send Signals’
“It’s entirely possible that the Chinese are beginning to look for ways to send signals to the new administration that they are not going to be pushed around when it comes to the U.S. role in Asia, whether it’s Taiwan or the South China Sea,” Fuchs said.

President Barack Obama cautioned Friday that Trump should move carefully in challenging the One-China policy.

“For China, the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. The idea of One-China is at the heart of their conception as a nation,” Obama said at his last year-end news conference at the White House. “If you’re going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what the consequences are.”

The rising tensions at sea come as the political balance in Southeast Asia over the disputed waters may be changing. While the Philippines won a favorable ruling from an international arbitration court on its territorial dispute with China that was initiated by his predecessor, President Rodrigo Duterte said at a televised briefing in Davao City Friday that he would set aside that finding as he attempts to work with China. 

Routine Mission
The Bowditch, which belongs to the U.S. Military Sealift Command, was on a routine mission to retrieve the drones, according to the Department of Defense. The Bowditch made radio contact with the Chinese navy ship requesting the return of the vehicle, but the request was ignored, Cook said in the statement. He described the drone as a “sovereign immune vessel of the United States.”

Typically the drones operate under their own power, collecting temperature and salt-level readings. The Chinese vessel was about 500 yards from the Bowditch when it launched a small vessel to retrieve the drone, according a Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because those details hadn’t been publicly released.

Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the Chinese move “a flagrant violation of the freedom of the seas.”

“This brazen provocation fits a pattern of increasingly destabilizing Chinese behavior, including bullying its neighbors and militarizing the South China Sea,” McCain said in a statement Friday. “And this behavior will continue until it is met with a strong and determined U.S. response.”

- Bloomberg

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