- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2016

The Defense Department is demanding the return of a U.S. Navy underwater drone captured by the Chinese military in the hotly contested waters of the South China Sea.

The U.S. Naval Ship Bowditch, a civilian vessel under the command of the sea service’s Military Sealift Command, was in the midst of collecting two underwater drones — known as “ocean gliders” — when Chinese Dalang III-class warship confronted the American vessel.

The crew of the Bowditch was able to retrieve one of the two gliders, which had stalled in international waters 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay off the Philippine coast. But Chinese sailors took the second drone before American sailors could retrieve it, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Friday.

“Bridge to bridge communications” were initiated between the two ships shortly after the second drone was take aboard the Chinese vessel, Capt. Davis explained during a briefing with reporters.

The civilian captain of the Bowditch requested the return of the drone during the brief exchange. His Chinese counterpart “ignored the request and they took it,” Capt. Davis said.

“It is ours … we would like it back and we would like it not to happen again,” he said, adding Defense Department officials are currently pursuing the return of the drone though diplomatic channels with Beijing.

The drone was “collecting unclassified information” on oceanographic details and was not part of any intelligence gathering operation in the South China Sea, according to the Pentagon. The drone’s capture by Chinese forces as “an action not keeping with international law,” Capt. Davis added.

Friday’s incident is just the latest diplomatic row between China, the U.S. and its allies surrounding Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.

On Thursday, satellite imagery released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, showed for the first time anti-aircraft and other heavy weapons installed on Chinese controlled areas in the Spratly Islands.

The island chain in the South China Sea has been the repeated flashpoint for growing tensions in the region, with China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and others all claiming territorial control.

In July, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration unanimously dismissed China’s claims of control in the Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal, the Fiery Cross Reef and other strategic points in the South China Sea. Beijing has thus far refused to acknowledge the court’s findings and has disputed its authority to weigh in on China’s territorial claims.

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