WASHINGTON • US President-elect Donald Trump has told Beijing to keep the US naval drone it had seized after the Chinese government said it would return it.
"We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back - let them keep it!" he tweeted on Saturday evening.
The 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.
Last Thursday, a Chinese submarine rescue ship close to the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey vessel operating about 50 nautical miles north-west of Subic Bay in the Philippines, took possession of the US drone.
"We have registered our objection to China's unlawful seizure of a US unmanned underwater vehicle operating in international waters in the South China Sea," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
POKING FUN AT MIXED MESSAGES
Before Trump's generous announcement that he didn't want the drone back, the Pentagon had already announced publicly that it has asked China to return the 'illegally seized' (unmanned underwater vehicle) through appropriate governmental channels. We don't know, after seeing Trump's new tweets, if the Pentagon should feel boggled.
THE GLOBAL TIMES, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper.
"Through direct engagement with the Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the (drone) to the United States."
China's Ministry of Defence said last Saturday that it had decided to return the drone in an "appropriate" manner, but did not specify what that meant.
Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said in a statement that the Chinese took the US drone because the US military frequently dispatched naval vessels to carry out reconnaissance and military measurements in China's waters.
"China resolutely opposes this and urges the US side to stop such activities," he said in the statement, which was published before Mr Trump's "keep it" tweet.
Chinese military expert Song Zhongping said the statement was to warn the US not to deploy this type of vessel in the South China Sea or else "we will keep on picking them up whenever we see them".
Despite sharp words from both sides, official statements by Washington and Beijing suggest the two governments are eager to avoid intensifying tensions at a moment of deep uncertainty in bilateral relations after Mr Trump's election.
Speaking after the Pentagon announced that the drone would be returned, a US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Obama administration was "glad to get it back and put this behind us".
The Global Times yesterday poked fun at the mixed messages coming from the US.
"Before Trump's generous announcement that he didn't want the drone back, the Pentagon had already announced publicly that it has asked China to return the 'illegally seized' (unmanned underwater vehicle) through appropriate governmental channels," the paper wrote. "We don't know, after seeing Trump's new tweets, if the Pentagon should feel boggled."
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