Chinese state-run propaganda publications are casting doubt on Beijing’s promise to return a stolen U.S. underwater drone in an “appropriate” manner, claiming that the drone may carry “valuable information” that China may not return with the hardware.
China’s Global Times, often the nation’s most belligerent English-language state newspaper, published a report citing multiple “experts” who condemned America for its unmanned exploratory missions in international waters, which China illegally claims as its own.
“The US was aware that such spying activity is inappropriate,” a “naval expert” identified as Li Jie told the newspaper.” This is why the US was so nervous and tried to use the media to hype it up this time while it had remained silent before.”
Li implied that the seizure of this drone was a routine Chinese government exercise and that the drone may be so valuable that China will erase the data on it before returning it. “This is not the first time that we seized a US underwater drone in the South China Sea, but the one we seized on Thursday is new and more advanced than before and might carry valuable information,” he argued. “The defense ministry spokesperson… might mean the information this drone gathered in the South China Sea will not be handed back to the US” when he promised the drone would be returned in “an appropriate manner,” Li speculated.
The same Global Times article claims the Chinese military had nothing to do with the seizure of the drone. “A Chinese fisherman surnamed Huang seized a ‘big iron fish’ when fishing in the South China Sea which he handed over to the local government afterwards,” the article claims. “Although it had no image or character on the surface, the components inside had English characters when it was opened by Chinese maritime researchers.” The latter appears to be a rebuttal to American government claims that the drone was “clearly marked.”
“It’s ours, it was clearly marked, we want it back, and we don’t want this to happen again,” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said last week, following China’s seizure of the device.
The official version of events does not involve a civilian fisherman coincidentally happening upon the “iron fish.” CNN reports that, according to the U.S. government, a Chinese naval ship picked the drone out of the water after following its owner, the USNS Bowditch, sending a smaller boat out to capture the device before the Bowditch could get to it.
“The US got no answer from the Chinese on the radio when it said the drone was American property,” CNN adds. “As they turned away, the Chinese did come up on the radio and indicated they were returning to their own operations.”
The incident occurred in the Philippine waters of the South China Sea, which China illegally claims as its own.
The American side of how China stole the drone out of the water reads much more similarly to the official Chinese Foreign Ministry series of events than the Global Times version. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying confirmed to reporters Monday that China’s navy indeed possessed the drone. “The key is that China’s navy had a responsible and professional attitude to identify and ascertain this object… If you discover or pick something up from the street you have to examine it and if somebody asks you for it you have to work out if it’s theirs before you can give it back.”
“What I can tell you is that at present, China and the United States are using unimpeded military channels to appropriately handle this issue,” she added.
The Foreign Ministry’s subdued response to the demand for the return of the drone differed dramatically both from the state propaganda responses and those of prominent voices within the Chinese government’s sphere of influence. The Diplomat compiles some of the loudest war drums from the Chinese “commentariat”:
- “China is a dragon, America is an eagle, Britain is a lion. When the dragon wakes up, the others are all snacks.”—Professor Jin Canrong of Renmin University
- “China is very sensitive about [UUVs] because they can track our nuclear ballistic missile submarines fleet. If one from the Bowditch can be detected and even snatched by a Chinese naval ship, it shows it’s getting too close to the sensitive water areas.”—Major General Xu Guangyu
- “On the South China Sea issue, we took in humiliations with a humble view in past years. I think this era has finished.”—Wu Shicun, director of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies
The Philippines, meanwhile, has called the incident “very trouble,” according to CNN, although President Rodrigo Duterte has, on numerous occasions, expressed his desire to strengthen relations with China at the expense of the nation’s relationship with the United States.