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Beijing returns seized US underwater drone in ‘smooth’ handover at S. China Sea

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US Navy / Reuters

A US sea drone seized by China last week was returned at an agreed location in the South China Sea, Beijing has confirmed. Despite the potential for a serious confrontation, the US says it will “fly, sail, and operate” in the area as before.

“After friendly consultations between the Chinese and US sides, the handover work for the US underwater drone was smoothly completed in relevant waters in the South China Sea at midday on December 20,” the Chinese Defense Ministry said in a brief statement cited by Reuters.

The Pentagon has already confirmed that its unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) was returned to the US “near the location it had been unlawfully seized.”

Peter Cook, the Pentagon spokesman, described the incident as “inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea.” He added that the US will “fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea… in the same way that we operate everywhere else around the world.”

A Chinese Navy Dalang vessel seized the UUV in South China Sea waters near the Philippines last Thursday. The survey ship that launched the drone, the USNS Bowditch, attempted to establish radio contact with the Dalang, but with no result, according to the US military. The US vessel was about to retrieve the drone before it was captured.

Washington maintained the Bowditch had been collecting data and samples of surface, mid-water and ocean floor measurements.

US President-elect Donald Trump accused Beijing of “stealing” the vessel.

“We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back – let them keep it!” he tweeted.

China’s Defense Ministry said that the craft was retrieved for the safety of passing vessels. Later it added that the vessel would be returned in an “appropriate manner,” calling the US response “unhelpful.”

The maritime incident took place just days after Trump’s comment on the so-called ‘One China policy,’ which states that the international community can maintain formal diplomatic relations with either China or Taiwan, but not both.

Last week on Fox News, he questioned the need for the US to maintain formal relations with Beijing instead of Taiwan, saying, “I fully understand the ‘one China policy,’ but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China policy’ unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

His statement on the policy sparked outrage in Beijing. Chinese state media launched scathing editorials which dubbed Trump a “diplomatic rookie” who is “provoking friction and messing up China-US relations.”

The US continues its military build-up in the region, launching stepped-up naval patrols and exercises in the South China Sea, which is adjacent to the Chinese mainland and key military bases on Hainan Island. Beijing has strongly criticized these activities and warned of taking bold action.

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