As China said it was “appropriately handling” the seizure of a US Navy underwater drone, which has triggered a tense standoff, president-elect Donald Trump waded in on Saturday by saying Beijing stole the vessel.
“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters - rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented (he meant unprecedented) act,” Trump tweeted.
His tweet may not help matters as Pentagon officials have they were trying to determine if the incident in the South China Sea had anything to do with Trump’s telephone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, which irritated the Chinese.
President Barack Obama has not weighed in on the drone seizure yet, even when he was asked a question about China and Taiwan at his yearend news conference on Friday, and has allowed the Pentagon to deal with it.
“We call upon China to return” the underwater vehicle “immediately” and “to comply with all of its obligations under international law”, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement on Friday.
‘China to return the drone’
China’s defence ministry responded on Saturday it had been in talks with the United States about returning the drone, but the US was not helping by “hyping up” the issue.
“China decided to return it to the US side in an appropriate manner, and China and the US have all along been in communication about it,” the ministry said on its website.
“During this process, the US side’s unilateral and open hyping up is inappropriate, and is not beneficial to the smooth resolution of this issue. We express regret at this,” it added.
The state-run nationalistic Global Times tabloid earlier quoted an unidentified People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer as saying the incident will be “resolved successfully”.
The PLA officer told the daily that Beijing had “received on Saturday a ‘claim request’ from the US for an underwater drone after a Chinese warship seized the craft during a security check in the South China Sea”.
US officials said the Chinese seized the drone while it was collecting unclassified scientific data about 92 km northwest of Subic Bay near the Philippines in the South China Sea, which China claims.
Capt Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said this was the first time the Chinese had seized a US naval vessel which had largely commercial, off-the-shelf technology that costs about $150,000.
The incident could increase tensions at a complex time, with China installing weapons on its man-made artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The US has been constantly challenging China’s claims and sent a destroyer close to the islands in October, drawing warnings from two Chinese warships. Beijing later called the visit “illegal” and “provocative”.
The two countries have verbally clashed on several occasions, with Washington and Beijing accusing each other of militarising the South China Sea.
Beijing is locked in disputes with several countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia over the ownership of islands in the region. Global trade worth more than $5 trillion passes through the waters and the region is said to be rich oil and gas reserves.