China expected to make demands before returning US drone: Analysts

Officials say China will return an underwater US drone seized by a naval vessel this week in the South China Sea, as Beijing says that Washington has been 'hyping up' the incident.
An underwater drone is recovered off the coast of Scotland on Oct 8, 2016.  China is expected to make demands to the United States before it hands over a US naval underwater drone seized in international waters in South China Sea.
An underwater drone is recovered off the coast of Scotland on Oct 8, 2016. China is expected to make demands to the United States before it hands over a US naval underwater drone seized in international waters in South China Sea. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG - China is expected to make demands to the United States before it hands over a US naval underwater drone seized in international waters in South China Sea, a report quoted analysts as saying.

Beijing could demand the US scale down its surveillance in the South China Sea and also seek an expansion in the code for unplanned military encounters to cover drones like the one seized near Subic Bay, off the Philippine coast, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Monday (Dec 19).

It quoted Dr Yuan Zheng, a US affairs specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying Beijing would convey to Washington its dissatisfaction over US reconnaissance activities in the disputed South China Sea.

Professor Zhang Zhexin from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies told the newspaper that "Beijing will possibly talk to the US about expanding the code for unplanned encounters at sea to include unmanned underwater vehicles."

The code includes standard operational procedures designed to minimise the risks of unintended maritime encounters, but does not have a procedure to deal with underwater drones, the report said.

A US oceanographic survey vessel , the USNS Bowditch, was on a mission in the South China Sea last Thursday to retrieve the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), which collects information on water conditions that help US vessels operate. But a Chinese submarine rescue ship close to it seized the UUV, ignoring demands by the US vessel for it to be returned.

The Chinese Defence Ministry said a Chinese naval vessel discovered a piece of "unidentified equipment" and checked it to prevent any navigational safety issues before discovering it was a US drone.

"China decided to return it to the US side in an appropriate manner, and China and the US have all along been in communication about it," the ministry said on its website. "During this process, the US side's unilateral and open hyping up is inappropriate, and is not beneficial to the smooth resolution of this issue."

The drone is used to collect information on water conditions such as salinity level and water temperature. People's Daily, however, quoted Professor Zhang Huang from the PLA National Defence University as saying it could be used to gather data on Chinese naval actions, and the navigation details of Chinese submarines.

US President-elect Donald Trump reacted to the incident with a tweet on Sunday: "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!"

His comment could prolong one of the most serious incidents between the US and Chinese militaries in recent memory, potentially complicating ties ahead of Mr Trump's inauguration on Jan 20, the Washington Post reported.

Mr Trump angered China recently when he spoke by phone with Taiwan President Tsai Ing Wen, a first by a US president or president-elect since President Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979.

While it is not clear how the Trump administration will handle efforts by China to assert itself in the South China Sea, his stance toward Beijing suggests a hard line approach.