“We have registered our objection to China’s unlawful seizure of a US unmanned underwater vehicle operating in international waters in the South China Sea,” said Peter Cook, Pentagon spokesman. “Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV (drone) to the US.”
The seizure of the drone by the Chinese navy marked a sharp escalation in already rising tensions between the two countries.
A US defence official said the device was grabbed as it was being operated by the USNS Bowditch, a survey vessel.
The Obama administration issued a formal démarche after the incident, the most dramatic recent flashpoint between the US and China in the South China Sea, where disputes over islands and resources have become a geopolitical faultline and prompted persistent friction between the two countries’ navies.
President-elect Donald Trump on Saturday criticised the seizure of the drone. “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented [sic] act,” he wrote on Twitter.
After the Pentagon’s announcement, Mr Trump on Saturday evening weighed in again on the situation on Twitter: “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back — let them keep it!”
China’s defence ministry said on Saturday night that one of its navy vessels had picked up the drone “to prevent it endangering the ship’s navigation and crew”.
It said that it would hand it back to the US “in an appropriate manner” but it criticised the US response to the incident, which it said was “not conducive” to resolving the dispute smoothly.
It said simply that “China and the US are handling this incident properly through military channels on both sides”.
The seizure came days after Mr Trump appeared to challenge Beijing by speaking on the phone with the president of Taiwan and suggesting that he would consider abandoning US policy over the island if China did not make concessions to the US over other issues, including the South China Sea.
“This is the opening shot, the first part of the Chinese response to push back against Trump over Taiwan,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.
“It is likely that this was a very well choreographed decision from the top.”
Under the “One China” policy, the US recognised Beijing as the legitimate government of China and cut formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. However, the US continues to sell arms to Taiwan to help it defend itself from a potential Chinese invasion.
In an interview last weekend, Mr Trump said that he did not see why the US should be bound by the “One China” policy if the Chinese were not willing to enter into a bargain with Washington over issues such as trade.
Asked at a press conference on Friday about the wisdom of threatening to overturn US policy on Taiwan, Mr Obama said that “I think it’s fine for him to take a look at it” but that the president-elect should ensure he was briefed on the potential fallout so that any new approach was adopted “in a systematic, deliberate, intentional way”. The policy had helped keep the peace while allowing Taiwan to become “a pretty successful economy”.
“The idea of One China is at the heart of their [Beijing’s] conception as a nation,” he said. “And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what the consequences will be because the Chinese will not treat that the way they’ll treat some other issues.”
US officials said that the Bowditch had been operating in international waters 50 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines and was doing “normal” survey operations.
The drone, an “ocean glider” that is used to gather oceanographic data, had returned to the surface and was waiting to be retrieved by the Bowditch. At that time, a Chinese naval vessel launched a small boat that picked up the glider. A radio request to the Chinese to return the drone was ignored.