China has surrendered the US Navy unmanned underwater vehicle it seized last week in the South China Sea in an incident the U.S. is calling illegal and unprofessional.
The Yokosuka-based destroyer USS Mustin received the underwater drone in the same area, about 50 miles northwest of the Philippines’ Subic Bay, where a Chinese ship “unlawfully seized” it on December 15, 2016 according to a Pentagon statement Tuesday.
The USNS Bowditch, a Military Sealift Command vessel, had been recovering two underwater gliders used to collect ocean data when a Chinese navy salvage ship pulled within 500 yards, launched a small boat and seized one of them in international waters, the Pentagon said.
“This incident was inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea,” the statement said.
Chinese state-run media reports have criticized the U.S. for conducting “close-in surveillance” within the South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of as its own. The Chinese Communist Party newspaper The People’s Daily said the drone was found in “Chinese jurisdictional waters.”
The drone was seized and the handover completed within the Philippines exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, the Defense Department said.
“The seized UUV is a sovereign immune vessel of the U.S. Navy which was conducting routine operations in the international waters of the South China Sea in full compliance with international law,” the Pentagon said Tuesday.
EEZs comprise about a third of the world’s oceans and are open to navigation. Most countries consider them open to surveillance activities under international maritime law, though a few countries, such as China, have raised objections.
However, Chinese vessels operate their own underwater drones, and their intelligence ships have routinely been reported within U.S. EEZs off Guam, Hawaii and Alaska, according to previous Navy reports.
The U.S. is continuing to investigate the incident and will discuss the findings with China, said the statement, which also called on the Chinese to “refrain from further efforts to impede lawful U.S. activities.”
China’s claims to hundreds of rocks, reefs and small islands within the South China Sea have stoked tensions in recent years with its neighbors, several of whom hold competing claims. China has dumped more than 3,000 acres of landfill on its claimed reefs, topping them with weapons, radar and military-capable runways, according to Pentagon reports and satellite imagery.