Friday, the U.S. demanded the return of an underwater survey drone that was taken by a Chinese navy ship shadowing a U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship in the South China Sea.
Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, says it was clearly marked that it was ours. We want it back, and we do not want to see this to happen again.
This marks the first time since April 2001 that the Beijing government has taken a piece of U.S. military gear. Since the Chinese took a Navy surveillance plane on Hainan Island after a midair collision. However, unlike that incident, this underwater drone was on an unclassified mission and isn’t an intelligence asset.
The drone, known as the “underwater glider” is valued at approximately $150,000. It wasn’t on a classified surveillance mission, but it was collecting bathymetric data from the sea, and data on the water’s salinity, temperature, and current flow.
The State Department began a formal diplomatic protest overnight due to the incident and said they are addressing the issue through diplomatic channels. The Chinese Defense Ministry website doesn’t mention the incident, and calls to an after-hour duty office phone have not been answering yet.
Seizing the drone marks the latest and perhaps the sharpest point of tension between the U.S. And Chinese military forces in the South China Sea. The South China Sea is a critical trade waterway where China has built artificial islands. And claimed a vast majority of aquatic territory, to the dismay of U.S. officials and neighbors.
Thursday, a Washington-based think tank reported that the Chinese had placed small weaponry on seven of the reclaimed islands in the South China Sea over the last few months.
The incident on Thursday happened as the U.S. Naval Ship “Bowditch” was conducting survey work along the sea floor in the South China Sea. They were using at least two of the underwater drones about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines. They were shadowed by a Chinese ship, which is typical when U.S. ships navigate through those waters.
The Chinese ship put a smaller boat in the water to retrieve the American drone. And the U.S. ship established “bridge-to-bridge” communications with the Chinese vessel, about 500 yards away. The American crew efforts for the Chinese ship to leave the drone in the water were not successful.
The drone, which uses GPS technology, wasn’t rerouting away from the Chinese ship easily. The last communication from the Chinese ship was that they were returning to normal operations.