- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 17, 2016

Washington and Beijing have agreed to terms to return a Navy drone captured in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to the U.S., the Pentagon announced Saturday.

The Chinese navy’s seizure of the underwater drone — known as an “ocean glider” — in international waters 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay off the Philippine coast was the latest diplomatic row in America’s increasingly tense relationship with China.

“We have registered our objection to China’s unlawful seizure of a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle operating in international waters in the South China Sea,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.

“Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV to the United States,” he added.

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.

Its capture by Chinese forces was “an action not keeping with international law,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Friday, shortly after news of the incident broke.

Officials with the Chinese Defense Ministry criticized Washington for its “inappropriate” overreaction to the drone’s capture, according to reports in the New York Times.

That reaction was “not conducive to solving the problem smoothly,” Chinese defense leaders said in a statement issued Saturday.

Beijing also dismissed the Pentagon’s claims that the ocean glider was not part of U.S. military intelligence operations in the South China Sea, adding the drone was conducting “close-in reconnaissance and military surveys” on Chinese naval activities in the area.

China’s decision to release the drone Saturday, came hours after President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter to slam Beijing’s actions.

“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act,” Mr. Trump tweeted, misspelling the word “unprecedented” in the missive.

The tweet was the latest example of the President-elect’s confrontational stance toward Beijing, who he has taken to task for currency manipulation and other questionable economic actions.

Bombastic critiques of Chinese economic and military policy was a staple of Mr. Trump’s campaign speeches.

He further antagonized U.S.-Chinese relations by taking a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, breaking decades of U.S. diplomatic protocol linked to Washington’s “One China” policy which does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

The agreement with China comes a day after a Chinese Dalang III-class warship confronted the The U.S. Naval Ship Bowditch as it was retrieving two ocean gliders that had stalled off the coast of the Philippines.

The crew of the Bowditch, a civilian vessel under the command of the sea service’s Military Sealift Command,was able to retrieve one of the two gliders. But Chinese sailors took the second drone before American sailors could retrieve it, said Capt. Davis 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,” he added.

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