“After friendly consultations between China and the United States, the transfer of the US underwater drone was smoothly completed in relevant waters in the South China Sea at midday on 20 December,” the Chinese Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday, referring to the device it seized about 50 miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines last week.
The U.S. government had a rather different view of the situation, with the Pentagon denouncing China’s actions as “unlawful” and promising further investigation.
“The US remains committed to upholding the accepted principles and norms of international law and freedom of navigation and overflight and will continue to fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea wherever international law allows, in the same way that we operate everywhere else around the world,” said the Pentagon, in a statement reported by CNN.
After a Chinese vessel nabbed the drone, the Pentagon pointed out it was “lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea” and was a “sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water.” It was also clearly marked as property of the United States.
“It is ours. It’s clearly marked as ours. We would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said last Friday.
Despite China’s cheerful take on the resolution of the crisis, it was serious enough to cause consternation in both Washington and Manila. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been vocal in his desire for better relations with China — and given to occasional angry outbursts at the United States, as he boasts of pivoting away from the U.S. completely to China and Russia — but there is still apprehension in the Philippines that China will not respect its territorial rights in the South China Sea. China’s unlawful actions took place in a region it does not claim as its own waters.
Bloomberg News speculates the drone seizure could have been intended as a message for President-elect Donald Trump, or for Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris, who declared America’s intention to oppose Chinese attempts to control the South China Sea last week.
Other analysts point to the way China uses small provocations to “shape the perception that it is in control of the South China Sea and will not back down,” as Michael Raska of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore explained to the Associated Press.
“They use the South China Sea as political, economic and informational means to project power and to influence domestic and external perception that the South China Sea is basically Chinese,” Raska said.
It is also possible the Chinese intercepted the drone because it was conducting surveillance of a Chinese submarine. The Diplomat notes that the ship which intercepted the drone was a Dalang-III class submarine rescue ship.
The Diplomat makes the case that China’s actions were “illegal by any measure of international law”:
The legal aspect of this incident cannot be overemphasized given that it comes less than six months after China faced legal defeat at the hands of a five-judge tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration over its capacious claims in the South China Sea and its behavior therein. Unfortunately, given the change in government in the Philippines — the once-enthusiastic plaintiff in that case — the reputational costs that had been anticipated for Beijing for being found in transgression of international law never quite materialized.
A Chinese naval vessel engaging in what amounts to outright theft outside the nine-dash line should spur regional claimant states and certainly the United States to forcefully speak out in favor of international law.
The Diplomat article addresses another theory about the seizure by noting the American drone was not terribly advanced beyond Chinese underwater probes and operated using “largely unclassified means,” so it seems unlikely China wanted to steal its technology.
Chinese state-run media seemed content to mostly relay the government’s brief statements on the return of the drone. For example, Xinhua repeated the Ministry of Defense’s statement that it “handed over the U.S. underwater drone it captured in its waters to the United States” — a false statement, as the drone was not in Chinese waters or anywhere near them.
Xinhua also quoted Chinese officials declaring their intention to return the drone in an “appropriate manner” over the weekend, which neatly evaded the highly inappropriate manner of its capture. That weekend report also falsely insinuated that the American drone was seized in Chinese waters.
The more reliably overheated Global Times amusingly claimed that, “in the eyes of the Chinese public, the US’ intelligence gathering around China has posed a severe threat to China’s national security,” before admitting that the drone was seized in international waters and amusingly insisting that the location was “much closer to China than to the U.S.”
The Global Times insisted, “quite a few Chinese believe that we should not return the drone to Washington.”
“Of course, we understand that we cannot do whatever we want, hence we showed respect to the decision made by the Chinese diplomatic team and military,” the editors added, before launching into a few more paragraphs of hectoring about U.S. intelligence-gathering in the South China Sea, and how it causes “actual damage to China’s interests.”
Somehow the theft of an American drone by China becomes a teachable moment for the U.S. to mind its manners in the eyes of the Global Times editors:
Washington should be well aware that it is the strategic aggressor in its controversies with Beijing and China only plays the role of strategic defender.
Peace in the Asia-Pacific region needs Sino-US collaboration. The more divergences there are, the more significant bilateral cooperation is to the two sides.
Public opinion can express anything they like, but the Chinese and US governments must present their sense of responsibility and be the guardians of peace and stability.
An excellent first step toward guarding bilateral peace and stability is to avoid unilaterally hijacking the property of other nations.