China Seizes U.S. Underwater Drone From International Waters, Pentagon Says

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A unmanned underwater vehicle deployed by a U.S. Navy ship in international waters has been seized by China, according to Pentagon officials.

The seizure of the underwater vehicle took place Thursday, about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines, NPR’s Tom Bowman reports.

The situation is unusual: U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said there was no precedent that anyone could remember, Tom reports.

The Pentagon says that the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, had two “gliders” — unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) — in the water. The undersea drones measure things like salinity and temperature, Tom says.

The Bowditch was retrieving one vehicle when a Chinese warship pulled up, put a small boat in the water and retrieved the second UUV, officials say.

The Chinese ship would not respond to any U.S. radio inquiries about its actions, except to acknowledge that they received them, the Pentagon says. No shots were fired by either vehicle, and the Chinese ship left with a final message that it was returning to normal operations — and with the drone.

The U.S. has issued a demarche — a formal diplomatic protest — and demanded the drone’s return, Reuters reports.

The incident comes amid fresh tensions between China and the U.S., following moves by President-elect Donald Trump that have unsettled decades of diplomatic protocol.

Trump spoke with Taiwan’s president by phone earlier this month, and told Fox News he “wouldn’t feel bound by a one-China policy” — the policy holding that Taiwan is part of China, which China considers essential for diplomatic relations. China responded to Trump’s latter comments by expressing “serious concerns.”

NPR’s Rob Schmitz wrote last month that it’s hard to tell how Trump’s presidency will affect relations with China, which has been spending “more than ever” to expand its military capabilities.

He noted that one Trump adviser said Trump would beef up the U.S. fleet to defend U.S. trade in the South China Sea — which directly conflicts with Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

The site of the incident, meanwhile, is in the long-disputed waters of the South China Sea, where multiple countries claim sovereignty.

The ship in question was about 50 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines.

The U.S. and the Philippines, a former U.S. colony, have been closely tied for decades; the two countries are treaty allies. In recent years, a rise in tensions between Manila and Beijing has led to a growing U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

But the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has signaled a shift away from the U.S. and made overtures to China.

“There’s no doubt Duterte is trying to reset the Philippines’ fractious relationship with China, a falling-out based largely on Beijing’s recent territorial moves in the South China Sea,” Michael Sullivan reported for NPR this fall. “But there’s also little doubt that Manila’s relationship with Washington is on the rocks — and not just because of U.S. criticism of Duterte’s war on drugs, which has left more than 3,000 dead since the president took office in June.”

One expert told Sullivan that there’s widespread belief in the Philippines that the U.S. commitment to the Philippines is “limited,” and would not extend to substantive assistance for Manila in a real conflict with Beijing.

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