After seizing an American unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) operating in international waters in the South China Sea last week, China’s defense ministry has agreed to return the drone to the US—even if president-elect Donald Trump wants Beijing to keep it.
But, even if it returns the drone, there may be something that Beijing wants to keep. The Chinese defense ministry said it would return the UUV ”in an appropriate manner.” This suggests that Beijing plans to keep the data the drone was collecting, as it may be carrying “valuable information,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert told state tabloid Global Times in an article published yesterday (Dec. 18).
The location of the seizure was 50 nautical miles (about 90 kilometers) from the Philippines, which means it was not only in international waters but also beyond China’s sweeping nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea, which was rejected in a recent international tribunal ruling. The Pentagon said the UUV was being operated lawfully by civilian contractors to conduct oceanic research.
The latest flare-up between the US and China adds to the rise in military tensions in the region in recent weeks. China may be flexing its military muscles in response to Trump’s recent remarks suggesting that the US could break with its decades-long policy on Taiwan and China, or to US Pacific Command chief Harry Harris’s comments last week that the US would confront China’s attempts to control the South China Sea.
Song Zhongping, a military commentator, also told the Global Times that in addition to collecting scientific information about the ocean, the American UUV could have been gathering military intelligence, including movements of the Chinese navy and Chinese nuclear submarines.
The drone-seizure incident seems to be the first of its kind, but Chinese state media reported in August 2015 (linked in Chinese) that a Chinese fisherman found an unidentified underwater drone—with English characters written on its components—in the South China Sea and handed it over to Chinese maritime researchers.
Beijing should not take Trump’s Twitter remarks seriously as no one really knows what he is thinking, said an op-ed (link in Chinese) published Monday (Dec. 19) on the front page of the top state newspaper People’s Daily’s overseas edition.
The author Hua Yiwen, identified as an international affairs expert, argued that the seized American drone was only “the tip of the iceberg” of the US’s military strategy on China. He wrote, the US’s increasing military presence in China’s claimed waters reflects its “doubts, and even hostility” to China.