China returns US underwater drone seized in South China Sea

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Washington considered the seizure illegal.

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BEIJING // China on Tuesday returned to the United States an underwater drone it had seized in an incident that has raised tensions between the two world powers amid signals of a tougher policy toward Beijing from president-elect Donald Trump.

Mr Trump has riled the Chinese leadership by saying he might reconsider US policy toward Taiwan, the self-ruled island the mainland claims as its territory.

The Chinese navy vessel that seized the drone last week returned it near where it was seized, and it was received by the USS Mustin about 80 kilometres north-west of Subic Bay in the Philippines, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said. Mr Cook said Washington considered the seizure illegal.

“This incident was inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea,” he said, adding that the US has called on China to refrain from “further efforts to impede lawful US activities”.

The US said it would continue to “fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea wherever international law allows”.

A spokeswoman of China’s foreign ministry said there was no basis for the Pentagon’s assertion that the seizure was unlawful, instead linking it to US military presence in the waters, which Beijing considers provocative.

“We have been pointing out that over a long time, the US has been sending aircraft and vessels to conduct close-in reconnaissance and military surveys in waters facing China, which poses threats to China’s sovereignty and security,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

“That is the root cause of the incident,” she said, calling for the US to stop such activities.

China’s defence ministry said it handed the drone back after “friendly consultations”.

Chinese officials say the drone was removed from the water to ensure the safety of passing ships, but domestic political experts have read the move as a warning to Mr Trump not to test Beijing’s resolve over Taiwan.

Early this month, Mr Trump broke protocol by speaking with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. He later said he did not feel “bound by a one-China policy” unless the US could gain trade or other benefits from China. Beijing regards any acknowledgement that Taiwan has its own head of state as a grave insult.

“China wants to send a message to the US side about how serious the consequences can be if sensitive issues in China-US relations are handled unilaterally and indiscreetly,” said Xiong Zhiyong, an international relations expert at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. “The return of the seized drone shows that China hopes the US will not provoke China on these issues and engage in solving issues through consultation.”

The incident underscores how Mr Trump will confront as president an increasingly assertive China that wants to extend its reach in the South China Sea, a strategically vital area through which about US$5 trillion (Dh18.36bn) in global trade passes each year. Several of China’s smaller neighbours have protested China’s territorial claims there and are closely watching Mr Trump’s handling of the disputed sea.* Associated Press