The diplomatic and military friction over China’s attempts to create sovereign waters in the South China Sea escalated yesterday with the seizure of an unmanned drone from an American ship, which became public within the last hour or so. The US insists that the USNS Bowditch, a US Navy oceanographic survey ship (T-AGS-62), was conducting routine scientific research in international waters off of the Philippines. When the crew attempted to bring it back to the ship along with another unmanned drone in use, a ship from the Chinese navy seized one of the drones and refused to acknowledge communications with the Bowditch:
US Defense official: US oceanographic drone was being retrieved by the USS Bowditch, but the Chinese swooped in and "they stole it."
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) December 16, 2016
Bowditch had stopped in the water to pick up two underwater drones. At that point a Chinese naval ship that had been shadowing the Bowditch put a small boat into the water. That small boat came up alongside and the Chinese crew took one of the drones.
The US got no answer from the Chinese on the radio when it said the drone was American property, the official said.
As they turned away, the Chinese did come up on the radio and indicated they were returning to their own operations.
US oceanographic research vessels are often followed in the water under the assumption they are spying. In this case, however, the drone was simply measuring ocean conditions, the official said.
This isn’t the only provocation this week from China in the area. They installed weapons on their man-made islands in the South China Sea to back up their claims of sovereignty over the trade routes:
As of the moment, the Obama administration has filed a formal démarche with China, demanding the return of the drone:
Department of Defense confirms that China has captured an underwater US Navy drone that was collecting data in the South China Sea pic.twitter.com/0uwp0DorcP
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) December 16, 2016
That’s diplomatic language for a protest, and it usually requires a response between countries with normal diplomatic relations. The likeliest response here is a return of the drone — after China’s intelligence and military analysts get a good look at it, of course.
The point of this exercise isn’t really to check out our underwater drone technology. It’s to scare off the US Navy from challenging China’s invention of sovereignty in the South China Sea. That might have been why the Bowditch was out there, in spite of the benign description offered by the Navy. The mission of this class of ships is to “Support worldwide oceanography programs, including performing acoustical, biological, physical and geophysical surveys.” The US Navy would certainly be interested in the “physical and geophysical” aspects of these islands, especially in regard to their illegitimate creation. That’s probably what the Chinese thought, anyway, and wanted to send a message like buzz off in response. It could also be a response to Donald Trump’s opening to Taiwan, but this appears more of a direct statement about China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.
What happens if China refuses to return our equipment? Perhaps Barack Obama will offer an explanation in today’s pre-vacation press conference before he ships out to Hawaii, scheduled to start at 2:15 ET this afternoon. This could be his working-est vacation yet, but at least he’ll be in good position to respond. That’s why he’s going to Hawaii, right — to be on the front lines and deal with the situation directly?