The US Defense Department has demanded that China return an underwater drone that was “unlawfully seized” in the South China Sea, an episode that threatens to increase tensions between Washington and Beijing in the disputed waters.
“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 Friday.
The drone was deployed by an American oceanographic survey ship in international waters in the South China Sea when the Chinese launched a small boat on Thursday and snatched the unmanned underwater vehicle, the Pentagon said Friday.
Ignoring radio demands from the Americans to return the drone, the Chinese ship sailed off.
The seizure of the drone brought a formal protest from the United States and set off one of the tensest standoffs between Beijing and Washington in 15 years.
The South China Sea has become a source of friction between the US and China since Washington launched its so-called pivot to Asia strategy some five years ago.
China has repeatedly criticized US military presence in the region. Observers believe America’s efforts to increase its presence in the Asia-Pacific region are aimed at containing China, and the policy has increased the chance of confrontation between Beijing and Washington.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, despite partial counterclaims by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. China is also locked in disputes with Japan and South Korea over the East China Sea.
Thursday’s incident complicated already fraught relations between the US and China, ties that have been further frayed by incoming President Donald Trump’s phone call with the president of Taiwan earlier this month.
The conversation between Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was a first by a US president or president-elect since Washington cut ties with Taipei in 1979 and committed to the “one-China” principle, which recognizes Taiwan as a part of China.
President Barack Obama warned Friday that a shift in China policy could lead to significant consequences in the US relationship with Beijing.
“For China, the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket,” Obama told a news conference. “The idea of one China is at the heart of their conception as a nation and so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what … the consequences are.”