China and US in direct contact over drone

The USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, in the South China Sea.
The USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, in the South China Sea.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The Chinese and US militaries are communicating with each other through unimpeded channels and the underwater drone issue will be dealt with appropriately, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said.

"The two sides are in communication and the unmanned underwater vehicle will be transferred to the US side through appropriate means after inspection," ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said at a regular media briefing yesterday.

The Chinese navy had picked up the drone last Thursday in the South China Sea, about 50 nautical miles off the Philippine coast, just as the US navy oceanographic survey ship USNS Bowditch was preparing to retrieve it from the water.

The Chinese Defence Ministry on Saturday said China had decided to return the drone but criticised the United States for "hyping up" the matter after the Pentagon went public with the incident on Friday.

The Pentagon, which had accused the Chinese of "illegally" seizing the drone, on Saturday confirmed that it had "secured an understanding" that the Chinese will return it.

Ms Hua yesterday also took issue with President-elect Donald Trump's comment on Saturday that China had stolen the drone, saying "we dislike very much the term 'steal' ". She added that the Chinese navy had behaved responsibly and professionally in identifying and verifying the object to prevent it from causing harm to passing ships and their personnel.

While Mr Trump has in recent days made critical comments about China over Taiwan and the South China Sea, Chinese experts and commentators in the main did not think the incident was in response to his remarks.

Instead, it has to do with the increased activity of the US navy in the South China Sea, particularly its surveillance of Chinese military activities in the area, they said.

Indeed, the overseas edition of the Communist Party-owned People's Daily said in a commentary yesterday that the USNS Bowditch was a "serial offender" in spying operations against China.

"This drone that floated to the surface in the South China Sea is the tip of the iceberg of US military strategy, including towards China," it said.

Chinese security expert Wang Xiangsui noted that to the Chinese, US activity in the region has clear military intent and, at the very least, there is possible military threat. Therefore, they need to find out what exactly the US is surveying with the drone, he added.

"The US navy has increased considerably its military activity in the South China Sea, providing the backdrop for various kinds of potential conflict or contradiction," he warned.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline 'China and US in direct contact over drone'. Print Edition | Subscribe