China has seized an unmanned US Navy underwater testing vehicle off the coast of the Philippines, a Pentagon official has revealed today (Friday, December 16).
Navy Captain Jeff Davis said the probe, a US Navy vessel operated by civilians, “was taken” by China, adding that the craft was seized about 50 miles north west of Subic Bay in international waters.
He confirmed that the US had issued a formal diplomatic complaint and was asking for the drone’s return.
The “naval glider” was being operated by the military’s Sealift Command to test water salinity and temperatures as part of a project to map underwater channels. It was about to be picked up by the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, when it was taken.
The seizure looks set to add fuel to the rising tensions in the South China Sea, where China has moved to fortify its claims to the disputed waters by building up reefs into artificial islands.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have competing claims in the South China sea, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
Satellite imagery made public by a US-based think tank this week showed that China has installed what appear to be large anti-aircraft guns and other weapons systems on seven islets in the Spratly chain.
While the US takes no official position on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, it has repeatedly stressed that all claims must comply with international law.
The US military has conducted several “freedom of navigation” operations in which ships and planes have passed through areas Beijing claims.
Such missions have drawn a furious response from Beijing, which has accused Washington of provocation and increasing the risk of a military mishap.
The seizure came hard on the heels of an admission by the Philippine foreign affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay Jnr that the country could not do anything about China’s militarisation of the waters.
“There is nothing that we can do about that now, whether or not it is being done for purposes of further militarising these facilities that they put up,” he told journalists in Singapore.
“We cannot, we cannot stop China at this point… and saying ‘do not put that up’. We will continue to pursue peaceful means by which all of these can be prevented.”
Tensions in the region are expected to escalate further under Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office. The president elect has questioned longstanding US policy on Taiwan, called Beijing a currency manipulator and threatened Chinese imports with punitive tariffs.