underwater drone

China believes US underwater drone was used to spy on South China Sea activities

China believes that an American underwater drone that it picked up in the South China Sea is part of efforts to spy on it, although Beijing has agreed to hand the device back to Washington.

The unusual drone seizure was commented on by US President-elect Donald Trump, who has vowed to take a more aggressive approach in dealing with China over its economic and military policies.

In a pair of provocative tweets, he accusing Beijing of stealing the equipment.

He said: “We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”

The drone, known as an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), was taken on Thursday and is the first seizure of its kind in recent memory.

The Pentagon went public with its complaint about the incident and said on Saturday it had secured a deal to get the drone back. China says it’s looking for an appropriate way to return the vehicle, but accused Washington of hyping up the issue.

China is deeply suspicious of any US military activities in the resource-rich South China Sea, which China claims almost in its entirely.

The overseas edition of the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily said in a commentary on Monday the USNS Bowditch, which was operating the drone, was a “serial offender” when it came to spying operations against China.

“The downplaying of the actions of the drone cannot cover up the real intentions in the background,” it said. “This drone which floated to the surface in the South China Sea is the tip of the iceberg of US military strategy, including towards China.”

The drone, which the Pentagon said was operating lawfully, was collecting data about the salinity, temperature and clarity of the water about 50 nautical miles north-west of Subic Bay, off the Philippines.

The USNS Bowditch (pictured) is an “infamous” military reconnaissance ship that has been surveying China’s coastal waters since 2002, Ma Gang, a professor at the People’s Liberation Army National Defence University, told the official China Daily.

“Oceanic data is crucial for ship formations, submarine routes and battle planning,” Ma said. “Therefore, it is normal for the Chinese Navy to be suspicious of Bowditch’s activities given past experience.”

According to Chinese state media, the same ship was involved in incidents in 2001 and 2002 when it was shadowed by Chinese navy vessels while operating in the Yellow Sea. Chinese media say it has also operated in the sensitive Taiwan Straits.

Zhang Huang, director of the security studies centre of the National University of Defence Technology, told the main edition of the People’s Daily the United States had been using civilian excuses to collect information that could have military implications.

“As soon as an underwater drone enters our waters for close in surveillance, it may be used to collect all sorts of information about submarine routes for our navy, seriously threatening our naval security,” Zhang said.

Ni Lexiong, a naval expert, Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said he believed the Chinese navy probably had orders to take the drone.

But Ni said this is a very different incident from the 2001 intercept of a US spy plane by a Chinese fighter jet that resulted in a collision that killed the Chinese pilot and forced the American plane to make an emergency landing at a base on Hainan.

“This is a much smaller incident, it won’t affect the overall picture of China-US relations,” he said, adding that he did not expect China to seek an apology from the US.

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