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China to return seized US sea drone but ties plunging into choppier waters

world Updated: Dec 18, 2016 17:46 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times, Beijing
China US drone row,US China relations,Donald Trump on drone

In a handout photo, an underwater drone is recovered off the coast of Scotland in October. The capture of the US underwater drone by Chinese Navy last week brought more diplomatic tensions to the surface.(NYT)

The latest US-China spat over Beijing seizing an American sea drone in the South China Sea (SCS) is on its way to be resolved with the return of the underwater vehicle. But the already tense bilateral relations is likely to enter choppier waters in the coming months.

Diplomats from the two countries have been involved in frequent exchanges of angry words recently, especially after US president-elect Donald Trump made comments on China and spoke with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a breakaway province.

The capture of the US underwater drone by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy last week brought more diplomatic tensions to the surface.The US reacted angrily, saying the drone was in international waters and China said Washington was hyping the incident. Beijing claims almost the entire SCS and is locked in disputes with several countries over the ownership of islands in the region.

But defence ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun said on Saturday that China had decided to return the drone to the US in an “appropriate manner”, signalling Beijing wanted to resolve the incident quickly.

According Yang's statement on the website of the defence ministry, and quoted by the official news agency, Xinhua, on the afternoon of December 15, a Chinese naval lifeboat located an unidentified device in the waters of the SCS.

“In order to prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels, the Chinese naval lifeboat verified and examined the device in a professional and responsible manner,” Xinhua quoted Yang as saying.

Yang added the Chinese side “has decided to hand over it to the US in an appropriate manner. Both sides have been maintaining communication on the issue”.

Yang, of course, made sure the US was conveyed China’s displeasure.

He said the US side's unilateral move to dramatise the issue is inappropriate, and not conductive to its settlement, adding: “We regret that”.

Referring to US often dispatching ships and aircraft to the SCS, Yang said: “China resolutely opposes these activities, and demands that the US side should stop such activities. China will continue to be vigilant against the relevant activities on the US side, and will take necessary measures in response”.

It will not be surprising to see more tense exchanges between the two countries in the coming weeks as Washington – and the world – readies for Trump’s presidency.

Whether Trump continues to make unpredictable statements on China after his tenure begins remains to be seen. But it would be a safe prediction that if he does, China will come back sharply.

First Published: Dec 18, 2016 17:46 IST