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China Seizes Unmanned American Vessel in South China Sea

The Chinese government has reportedly seized an American Navy vessel navigating the international waters in the South China Sea.

Reuters quotes a defense official as stating that the U.S. has issued a demand for return of the vehicle. The newswire service adds that the unmanned vehicle was on an exploratory mission northwest of Subic Bay and that this seizure is “the first [incident] of its kind in recent memory.”

The report comes as new satellite photos emerge indicating that China has begun placing specialized anti-aircraft weaponry on the artificial islands it has illegally built in the South China Sea. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), revealed earlier this week that China installed what appear to be “large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems (CIWS)” in the Spratly Islands, a chain claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. China has been constructing artificial islands on the Spratly reefs for years, causing significant environmental damage.

American officials have expressed concern over the development. “It appears China is intent on transforming these features into operational bases that will allow its military to project power and assert control of one of the most vital international waterways,” Senator John McCain said this week, calling the military development “unacceptable.” His words pale in sternness to those of U.S. Pacific Command head Admiral Harry Harris, who said in Sydney this week that the U.S. Navy is prepared to challenge any Chinese attempts to “close down” one of the world’s most important trade routes.

“I’ll be blunt in saying that the global operating system that created the Indo-Asia-Pacific economic miracle is coming under pressure from revisionist powers,” he said, referring to both China and Russia and announcing that Australia would allow some of America’s most advanced fighter jets to fly missions off Australian soil, in part as a disincentive to Beijing.

The Chinese government has responded by once again claiming that China possesses sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, despite an international court finding its constructions in the region illegal in July. “The U.S. has been trying to hype up the dispute in the South China Sea in an effort to escalate an already complicated situation,” the state-run People’s Daily claimed in an article on Friday. “However, the accusations are groundless and are not helpful for regional peace and stability,” it continued, citing an “expert.”

Chinese government-controlled media has made clear its intentions to intimidate the United States out of a role in Asia entirely. In a column this week, the Global Times discouraged “political rookie” Donald Trump from continuing the current White House’s support for freedom of navigation operations in the region, intended to discourage China from colonizing territory in international waters. To the neighboring countries whose territories China has usurped, the column urges, “Stability and cooperation in the South China Sea can be achieved without interference from external countries. This job had better be done before Trump could make choppier waves in the region.”

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