On Friday, reports surfaced that China had stolen a US Navy Drone from international waters off the coast of the Philippines in the South China Sea. The unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) was taken right in front of the American crew aboard the USS Bowditch after a Chinese vessel had been shadowing ship as it was picking up two research drones in the sea. The Chinese ship released a smaller boat and its crew subsequently captured one of America’s drones. The Pentagon says that China has agreed to return the drone but the Chinese defense ministry is very vague about when and how it plans to do so.
“Using appropriate government-to-government channels, the Department of Defense has called upon China to immediately return an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) that China unlawfully seized on Dec. 15 in the South China Sea while it was being recovered by a U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement on Friday, after the first reports that the unmanned vessel was stolen on Thursday. He added that the USS Bowditch made radio contact with the Chinese ship that had unlawfully seized the drone and that the “radio contact was acknowledged by the PRC Navy ship, but the request was ignored.”
On Saturday, the Pentagon released another statement saying that they reached an agreement with China in which they agreed to return the seized unmanned vessel.
“Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the U.U.V. to the United States,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook.
Earlier on Saturday, the Chinese defense ministry said they would return the unmanned underwater vessel in what they referred to as an “appropriate manner.” However, they also stated that they believed the US responded to the conflict in a way that was “not conducive to solving the problem smoothly.”
“We hereby express regrets for that,” the Chinese defense ministry statement said.
The statement neglected to address when or how the drone would be returned, and in what condition. There are questions of whether or not the underwater vessel will be handed back intact.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, stated that the Chinese and the US militaries are undergoing “unimpeded” talks about the returning of the drone.
“What I can tell you is that at present, China and the United States are using unimpeded military channels to appropriately handle this issue,” Chunying said during a press briefing.
When asked about Trump’s comments that the drone was “stolen” Chunying said that assertion was completely incorrect.
“The key is that China’s navy had a responsible and professional attitude to identify and ascertain this object,” she said. “If you discover or pick something up from the street you have to examine it and if somebody asks you for it you have to work out if it’s theirs before you can give it back.”
The Pentagon has stated that the drone was lawfully collecting data pertaining to the temperature, salinity, and clarity of the water about 50 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines in the Subic Bay.
As of Monday, the United States is still awaiting the return of the unmanned underwater vessel after the Chinese unlawfully took it out of international waters.