- President-elect said in tweet China had stolen unmanned vessel;
- China’s foreign ministry: Militaries in touch to handle case.
A top U.S. lawmaker said China may be poring over a seized underwater drone to unearth secret information about Navy technology, hours after President-elect Donald Trump suggested Beijing should “keep it.”
“The Chinese are able to do a thing called reverse-engineering, where they are able to — while they hold this drone, able to find out the technical data. And some of it is pretty valuable,” Senator John McCain of Arizona said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
U.S. POLITICAL TENSIONS
The remarks by McCain, who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee, highlighted the U.S. political tensions touched off by China’s choice to scoop up the submersible in international waters in the South China Sea. Guarantees from China were made that the vessel would be returned failed to quiet U.S. critics–including Trump, who initially denounced the ‘snatch-and-grab’ move but then reversed himself hours later.
Trump said on Twitter late Saturday that “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back – let them keep it!” This is not President-elect Trump’s business at this time.
Asked about the tweet, Jason Miller, communications director for the Trump transition, said on Fox News that China was likely to return “a chunk of metal and maybe a bag of wires” after holding the drone for several days. This is also not Jason Miller’s place to comment on at this time.
VIOLATION OF INTERNATIONAL LAW
McCain said China’s seizure was “a gross violation of international law,” echoing the U.S. response to the move and Trump’s initial blast via a tweet. The president-elect told his 17.5 million Twitter followers: “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act.”
That broadside hit hours after the Chinese government said it had been in touch with the U.S. military about the Dec. 15 incident. The Pentagon said that China will return the vehicle after “direct engagement” between Washington and Beijing.
China’s ministry of defense promised an “appropriate” return of the drone on its Weibo social media account, while also condemning the U.S. for publicizing the incident to a diplomatic row. It followed words from Beijing that the governments were working to resolve the spat.
The drone incident was disclosed by the Pentagon on Friday. China’s ministry said the U.S. “hyped the case in public,” which it said wasn’t helpful in solving the problem. The U.S. has “frequently” sent its vessels and aircrafts into the region, and China urges such happenings to stop, the ministry said in its Weibo message.
The Defense Department said a Chinese naval ship unlawfully seized the small unmanned vehicle Thursday while the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy survey ship, picked up the drone in a routine operation 50 nautical miles (93 kilometers) northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines.
Typically the drones operate under their own power. The Chinese vessel was about 500 yards from the Bowditch when it launched a small vessel to retrieve the drone, according a Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because those details hadn’t been publicly released.
The tensions released by the episode underscored the delicate state of relations between the two countries, weeks before Trump’s Inauguration. Trump has threatened higher tariffs on Chinese products and questioned the U.S. tactic to Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory. Meanwhile, China is growing more assertive over its claims to disputed sections of the South China Sea.
CHINA IS SENSITIVE
“China is very sensitive about unmanned underwater vehicles because they can track our nuclear ballistic missile submarines fleet,” said retired Major General Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at Beijing-based research group the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association. “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.”
In its statement Friday confirming reports that the drone had been captured, the Pentagon described it simply as “an unclassified” ‘ocean glider’ system used around the world to gather military oceanographic data such as
- Water temperature;
- Sound speed.