WASHINGTON—China “unlawfully” seized an unmanned US naval probe in international waters in the South China Sea, the Pentagon said Friday, a move sure to heighten tensions around Beijing’s military presence in the disputed area.
The underwater vehicle was taken around 50 nautical miles (90 kilometers) northwest off Subic Bay late Thursday in a non-violent incident, said Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
The event unfolded as the civilian-crewed USNS Bowditch was retrieving a pair of “naval gliders” that routinely collect information on water temperatures, salinity and sea clarity.
A Chinese Dalang-III class submarine rescue ship then stopped within 500 yards (meters) of the Bowditch and snatched one of the probes. The Americans safely hoisted the other one back onto their ship.
Davis said he could not recall another time when something like this has happened, and the Pentagon issued a statement calling on Beijing to “immediately” return the probe that it had “unlawfully seized.”
The US personnel “were asking over bridge-to-bridge radio to please leave it there,” Davis said.
Other than a brief acknowledgment that it had received the message, the Chinese ship did not respond.
“The only thing they said after they were sailing off into the distance was: ‘We are returning to normal operations,’” Davis said.
Washington has issued a formal request through diplomatic channels to ask for the probe back.
“It is ours. It is clearly marked as ours. We would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again,” Davis said.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said China had acted unlawfully.
“The UUV [unmanned underwater vehicle] is a sovereign immune vessel of the United States. We call upon China to return our UUV immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law,” Cook said in a statement.
Davis said the seized vessel is off-the-shelf technology that is commercially available for about $150,000. Data it gathers are unclassified and can be used to help submarines navigate and determine sonar ranges in murky waters.
The incident comes as President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly infuriated Beijing, by questioning longstanding US policy on Taiwan, calling Beijing a currency manipulator and threatening Chinese imports with punitive tariffs.
“This was very likely a highly planned and escalatory move to show China will not take matters lightly when it comes to” Trump, said Harry Kazianis, the director of defense studies at the conservative Center for the National Interest.
“Beijing is showing it has the capability to respond in a time and place of its choosing.”
Unless it is prepared to ramp up regional tensions, Washington has few options except to ask for the underwater vehicle back.
Senior Republican Senator John McCain said the United States should not tolerate “such outrageous conduct.”
“This brazen provocation fits a pattern of increasingly destabilizing Chinese behavior, including bullying its neighbors and militarizing the South China Sea,” McCain said.
“This behavior will continue until it is met with a strong and determined US response, which until now the Obama administration has failed to provide.”
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