The drone was taken on Thursday, the first seizure of its kind in recent memory, about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay off the Philippines, just as the USNS Bowditch was about to retrieve the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), U.S. officials said.
“It is understood that China and the United States are using military channels to appropriately handle this issue,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a brief statement sent to Reuters, without elaborating.
The Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said a Chinese naval vessel had discovered “unidentified equipment” and checked it to prevent any navigational safety issues. It cited an unidentified Chinese source.
“This person said China has already received a claim request for the equipment from the U.S. side. Relevant parties from both sides have maintained smooth communication channels and believe this issue will be smoothly resolved,” the paper said.
China’s Defence Ministry has yet to comment publicly on the issue.
“The UUV was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea,” a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water – that it was U.S. property,” the official said.
The Pentagon confirmed the incident at a news briefing on Friday, and said the drone used commercially available technology and sold for about $150,000.
Still, the Pentagon viewed China’s seizure seriously since it had effectively taken U.S. military property.
“It is ours, and it is clearly marked as ours and we would like it back. And we would like this not to happen again,” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said.
The seizure will add to concerns about China’s increased military presence and aggressive posture in the disputed South China Sea, including its militarization of maritime outposts.
A U.S. research group said this week that new satellite imagery indicated China has installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.
The drone seizure coincided with sabre-rattling from Chinese state media and some in its military establishment after U.S. President-elect Donald Trump cast doubt on whether Washington would stick to its nearly four-decades-old policy of recognising that Taiwan is part of “one China.”
President Barack Obama said on Friday it was appropriate for Trump to take a fresh look at U.S. policy toward Taiwan, but he cautioned that a shift could lead to significant consequences in the U.S. relationship with Beijing, as the notion that Taiwan is part of “one China” is central to China’s view of itself as a nation.
By Ben Blanchard
(Additional reporting by Josephine Mason and Meng Meng; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)