US asks China to return drone seized in South China Sea

Washington: The US has demanded the return of an underwater drone that was seized by China in the disputed South China Sea as an American crew was moving in to retrieve it, the New York Times said on Friday.

Chinese media reported that Beijing had received a “claim request” from the US for an underwater drone.

The episode threatens to increase tensions in a region already fraught with great power rivalries.

A Chinese warship had been shadowing the Bowditch, a US naval vessel, in the international waters of the South China Sea. The Chinese then launched a small boat and snatched the unmanned underwater vehicle, the Pentagon said.

Ignoring radio demands from the Americans to return the drone, the Chinese ship sailed away.

The episode led to one of the tensest standoffs between Beijing and Washington in 15 years and occurred a day after the Chinese signalled that they had installed weapons along a string of disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The seizure of the drone brought a formal protest from the United States at a time when China is extending claims over the South China Sea and is watching the US – and its incoming president – with wariness.

The episode did not have the life-or-death drama of the April 2001 midair collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a Navy surveillance plane that forced the Americans to make an emergency landing on Chinese territory.

Acknowledging the odd nature of Chinese sailors seizing the drone close to its American mother ship, an official here likened it to watching a thief steal a wallet in broad daylight.

American officials said they were still trying to determine whether the seizure was a low-level action taken by Chinese sailors who spotted the drone – which the Pentagon said was conducting scientific research – or a strategic-level action ordered by more senior Chinese leaders to challenge the American presence in those waters.

“We call upon China to return” the underwater vehicle “immediately,” New York Times quoted Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, as saying on Friday,

The incident complicates already testy relations between China and the United States, ties that have been further frayed by President-elect Donald J. Trump’s phone conversation with the president of Taiwan.

Trump angered Chinese officials by holding a phone conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, an island that Beijing deems a breakaway province of China.

It has been nearly four decades since a US president or President-elect had such direct contact with a Taiwanese leader.

Pentagon officials said on Friday that they were trying to determine if the seizure of the underwater drone had anything to do with Trump’s comments.