The incident has emerged as the latest thorn between China and the US, where President-elect Donald Trump has shown himself increasingly willing to confront and challenge Beijing.
Trump used Twitter to weigh in on the incident, eliciting a scathing response from the Global Times, a provocative but state-sanctioned tabloid.
“He bears no sense of how to lead a superpower,” an opinion piece published in the newspaper said.
“Even the US military did not use the term ‘steal’ to describe the move by the Chinese navy. Trump’s second tweet makes people worry that he will treat China-US relations as child’s play,” it added.
Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said it was unclear whether the incident was opportunistic or deliberately planned, but was unprecedented for China’s usually cautious naval and coast guard vessels.
“Although the drone was not conducting a military operation, disrupting and then stealing the naval platform — which has sovereign immune status — is one of the most brazen actions that the PLA Navy has taken against US Navy for a very long time,” Townshend said.
The unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), which the Pentagon also called an “ocean glider,” was seized Thursday from the USNS Bowditch — an unarmed oceanographic survey ship — as it was attempting to retrieve it and another underwater vehicle about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay, in the Philippines.
The Bowditch is operated the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command, which does logistics, cargo, humanitarian relief and special missions for the US Navy. Ships in the Bowditch’s class are crewed by 24 civilians and 27 military members, according to the Military Sealift Command website.
China has built up military bases in the South China Sea, which is home to a tense territorial dispute.
No transfer yet
A Chinese navy submarine rescue vessel launched a small boat and seized the vehicle. The Pentagon said the Chinese ship ignored demands repeated demands to return the vehicle from the USNS Bowditch
“As [the Chinese ship] went sailing off into distance, [it] said, ‘We are returning to normal operations,'” Pentagon press operations director Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said.
“It is ours. It is clearly marked; we’d like to have it back and [would] like this to never happen again,” he said.
The Pentagon said the UUV was an unclassified piece of equipment conducting routine operations and used around the world to gather “military oceanographic data” including salinity, water temperature and sound speed.
China’s Ministry of Defense said Saturday that China had decided to transfer the underwater drone back to the US but said the US had “hyped up” the issue.
“It is inappropriate — and unhelpful for a resolution — that the US has unilaterally hyped up the issue. We express our regret over that,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Sr. Col. Yang Yujun said.
The Pentagon said late Sunday that the transfer hadn’t taken place yet.
“We continue to work with our Chinese counterparts on the details and timing of the UUV’s (Unmanned underwater vehicle) safe return,” Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, told CNN.
Townshend said that Chinese naval and coast guard vessels “operate within the bounds of guidelines that are centrally dictated by officials in Beijing.”
“Any changes to established patterns of maritime behavior, like Thursday’s drone incident, would normally need to be pre-approved — particularly if the new actions are likely to be provocative,” he added.
“This, of course, does not mean that all actions are deliberate. Unsanctioned behavior by overly-assertive ship operators or local military commands has occasionally taken place, and could account for this latest provocation.”
Shaun Rein, a Shanghai-based author and commentator, said the seizure was China’s response to Trump’s recent questioning of US policy towards Taiwan.
“China is signaling it cannot be bullied while at the same time showing it does not want to risk armed conflict or death of any sailors,” he said.
“In the next month America should expect minor military provocations by China as well as more pressure on American business interests in China,” he added.
Since winning the presidency, Trump has seemingly rewritten US foreign policy on the fly.
He took a phone call from Taiwan’s president, upending decades of diplomatic protocol and questioned the long-standing US position that the Taiwan is part of “one China.”
China’s official response to Trump has been relatively muted but the Global Times indicated that this could change once he takes
“China has kept a calm attitude toward his provocative remarks. But if he treats China after assuming office in the same way as in his tweets, China will not exercise restraint,” the Sunday op ed said.