China's Defence Ministry has said Beijing will return a US underwater drone that its navy had seized in the South China Sea.
This came as President-elect Donald Trump yesterday accused China of stealing the drone. "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 in a tweet.
The Chinese Defence Ministry last night said China would transfer the drone to the US "through appro- priate means". Noting that China had maintained communication with the US over the matter, it said: "The US' unilateral hyping up (of the issue) is inappropriate and not conducive to its smooth resolution."
The unmanned underwater vehicle was taken just as the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, was about to retrieve it last Thursday, said US officials.
The incident took place 50 nautical miles north-west of Subic Bay, off the Philippines and outside the nine-dash line marking China's claim to almost the whole of the South China Sea, which overlaps with that of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The US had demanded the return of the drone. "It is ours, and it is clearly marked as ours and we would like it back. And we would like this not to happen again," said Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis.
As the incident came after Mr Trump and the commander of the US Pacific Command Harry Harris recently criticised China's actions in the resource-rich waterway, some saw China's move as a pushback against US pressure.
"China is doing this to send a signal to the US, to tell the Americans, 'no matter what you say, no matter what critical views you have, no matter what pressure you exert on China, China is not going to back down, it will do things that China regards as appropriate in the South China Sea dispute", said Associate Professor Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Mr Trump has accused the Chinese of building "a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea", while Admiral Harris has said the US is ready to confront the Chinese over the waterway.
But some Chinese analysts believe the incident has little to do with what Mr Trump has said recently, be it on the South China Sea or Taiwan. Earlier this month, he cast doubt on whether he would continue the decades-long US policy of acknowledging Beijing's position that Taiwan is a part of China.
Sino-US expert Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing said he did not think the seizure was due to instructions from top Chinese leaders but likely the result of "limited discretion" on the part of the navy ship captain, reflecting Beijing's hardline approach on the South China Sea.
"The incident does not tally with the prudent, wait-and-see approach that China is taking towards Trump before he enters the White House," said Professor Shi.