Pentagon Demands China Return Intercepted Navy Underwater Drone

The Pentagon demanded that China immediately return a U.S. Navy underwater drone that was captured in the South China Sea, in a confrontation certain to exacerbate tensions in a region where the government in Beijing has sought to assert greater control.China "unlawfully seized" the unmanned underwater vehicle Thursday while it was being recovered by a U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship during routine operations 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines, according to a Defense Department statement."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 the statement. The vehicle is an unclassified "ocean glider" system used around world to gather data on salinity, water temperature and sound speed.The incident, the latest in a string of confrontations in the region, focuses renewed attention on the strained relations over China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, an issue that President-elect Donald Trump will inherit when he takes office next month. Trump, who campaigned on a promise to extract better terms for trade with China, already has provoked condemnation from Beijing for taking a phone call from Taiwan's president and questioning the "One-China" policy for Taiwan and the mainland."At the very least this is the type of completely mundane sort of activity on the part of the United States or any other country operating freely in international waters that could lead to accidents or even potential conflict," 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.Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement calling the incident "a remarkably brazen violation of international law."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.The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said this week that "China appears to have built significant point-defense capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probably close-in weapons system" at each of its locations in the Spratly Islands.The last major confrontation 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 said was "irresponsible." The two sides have since sought to improve communication and avoid such incidents.While the U.S. says its naval operations in the region are an exercise of 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.At the same time, the political balance on the issue 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.In the incident on Thursday, a Chinese navy ship launched a small boat and retrieved the vehicle. The Navy ship, USNS 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."By Nafeesa Syeed and Nick Wadhams, Bloomberg.Bloomberg's Andreo Calonzo contributed.  Continue reading...

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