A Chinese warship, in a maneuver signaling an increasingly aggressive Beijing, has outright stolen an underwater drone from a U.S. ship that was conducting oceanographic research in the international waters of the South China Sea.
On Dec. 15, the USNS Bowditch was collecting two of its underwater drones about 50 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines when a smaller Chinese Dalang 3 class vessel intercepted one of them, officials say. The civilian U.S. ship demanded via radio the Chinese return the drone but were ignored.
The drone had cost $150,000. A U.S. official told Reuters that it had aso been "clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water -- that it was U.S. property."
The incident has angered U.S. officials, with the Pentagon making a formal demand that China return the drone.
"It is ours, and it is clearly marked as ours and we would like it back," said Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis. "And we would like this not to happen again."
A U.S. official who had requested anonymity stated that the USNS Bowditch drone was merely monitoring ocean conditions and called it a "sovereign immune vessel."
Senior fellow Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Asia-Pacific Security Program noted that China's "move, if accurately reported, is highly escalatory, and it is hard to see how Beijing will justify it legally."
China has taken an increasingly aggressive posture against the U.S. following President-elect Donald Trump's phone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in early December. The communication had broken decades of U.S. policy precedent and was taken by Beijing officials as a rejection of the "one-China" policy.
"Taiwan is China's core interest, and it defines a core interest as something that it is willing to go to war over," director Robert Daly of the Woody Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States told NPR.
Following Trump's call with Tsai, China has flown a nuclear bomber beyond international waters and over several sovereign islands -- sending a clear warning, the Miami Herald reports.
There has been no update on whether China will return the underwater drone.