China Agrees to Return Seized Drone, Ending Standoff, Pentagon Says

BEIJING — The Pentagon on Saturday said that Beijing had agreed to return an underwater drone seized by China in international waters, an indication that the two countries were moving to resolve an unusual incident that risked sharpening tensions in the run-up to the inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump.

“Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the U.U.V. to the United States,” said Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, using initials to refer to the Navy’s unmanned underwater vehicle.

Mr. Cook said the deal had been reached after the United States “registered our objection to China’s unlawful seizure of a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle operating in international waters in the South China Sea.”

The Chinese authorities told American officials that they planned to return the drone, but the two sides were still working out where, when and precisely how the device would be handed back, said two Defense Department officials, both of whom would talk about the negotiations with China only on the condition of anonymity. One of the officials said the Pentagon expected the matter to be resolved in the coming days without further acrimony.

The Pentagon statement came hours after China warned that the highly charged episode would not be resolved easily.

In a statement late Saturday, the Chinese Defense Ministry said it was in talks with the United States but criticized Washington for what it called an “inappropriate” exaggeration of the dispute. The American reaction, it said, is “not conducive to solving the problem smoothly.”

“We hereby express regrets for that,” it said.

Although the ministry said the drone would be returned to the United States in a “proper way,” the statement stopped short of saying when or how the device, which Chinese and American analysts say was most likely used to gather intelligence about Chinese submarine activity in contested waters, would be returned, or if it would be handed back intact.

President-elect Donald J. Trump entered the fray Saturday morning, accusing China on Twitter of acting improperly. “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act,” he said.

The overseas edition of The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, said on its social media account Saturday night that the Chinese capture of the drone was legal because rules about drone activities had not been clearly written. “This is the gray area,” the newspaper said. “If the U.S. military can send the drone, surely China can seize it.”

In its statement, the Defense Ministry scolded the United States over what it called its longstanding practice of conducting “close-in reconnaissance and military surveys” in waters claimed by China. The Chinese government has often complained to senior American officials, including President Obama, that the United States repeatedly intrudes by air and ship into waters close to China. The ministry’s statement reiterated the complaint, saying “China firmly opposes it and urges the U.S. side to stop such operations.”

A Chinese naval vessel seized the drone, which had been launched on Thursday from an American ship, the Bowditch, in waters off the Philippines. The American crew was in the process of retrieving the device when a small boat dispatched from the Chinese vessel took it as the American sailors looked on.

The action came two weeks after Mr. Trump angered Beijing by speaking by phone to the leader of Taiwan, and almost a week after he criticized China for building military bastions in the South China Sea. American officials were trying to determine whether the seizure was a response to Mr. Trump or whether it was just one more escalatory step in China’s long-term plan to try to push the United States Navy out of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest commercial and military waterways.

The Pentagon formally protested the capture of the drone, saying it was stolen American military property. The Pentagon said the drone had been carrying out scientific research, and asked China to return it. American experts, however, said the drone might have been designed to help follow China’s submarine buildup, a critical part of the country’s growing naval strength as it seeks unfettered control of the South China Sea and unimpeded access to the Pacific and Indian oceans.

A retired Chinese rear admiral, Yang Yi, speaking earlier at a conference sponsored by a state-run newspaper, The Global Times, said the Americans had invited the Chinese sailors to take the drone by sailing in the waters close to the Scarborough Shoal, fishing grounds that are claimed by China and the Philippines.

The Americans “deliver these things to our home,” and it would be more than natural for Chinese sailors to seize the drone and examine it, Admiral Yang said.

“If Trump and the American government dare to take actions to challenge the bottom line of China’s policy and core interests,” he said, “we must drop any expectations about him and give him a bloody nose.”

Reached by telephone, the president of a state-affiliated think tank, Wu Shicun, said the United States had most likely been conducting intelligence reconnaissance to detect Chinese submarine routes in the South China Sea. Mr. Wu, who heads the National Institute for South China Sea Studies and advises the government on maritime matters, described the drone “as a new way for the United States to conduct intelligence gathering.”

“Previously the United States conducted surveillance with warships in the nearby waters of China, or by aircraft,” he said. “Now the unmanned underwater vehicle is a new approach.” The Chinese were justified in taking the unmanned underwater vehicle, he said.

The episode occurred in seas about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay, a major port of the Philippines and a former United States Navy base, the Pentagon said. That means the Bowditch was within 200 miles of Scarborough Shoal, American analysts said.

The American vessel appeared to be outside the perimeter of the “nine-dash line,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. China drew the line in the late 1940s as it laid claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea.

“China has no legal basis to take actions like these on the high seas, but doing so outside Beijing’s ambiguous claim line is particularly egregious and will make the incident especially hard to justify,” Ms. Rapp-Hooper said. Read more…

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