China says it seized US Navy drone to ensure safety of ships

AP PHOTO In this undated photo released by the U.S. Navy Visual News Service, the USNS Bowditch, a T-AGS 60 Class Oceanographic Survey Ship, sails in open water. The USNS Bowditch, a civilian U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship, was recovering two drones on Thursday when a Chinese navy ship approached and sent out a small boat that took one of the drones, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

BEIJING — China said Saturday its military seized a U.S. Navy unmanned underwater glider in the South China Sea to ensure the “safe navigation of passing ships,” but would give back the drone after determining it was an American device.

The United States later confirmed it had “secured an understanding” for the return, seeming to settle one of the most serious incidents between the two militaries in years.

The Chinese navy on Thursday seized the drone, which the Pentagon said was being operated by civilian contractors to conduct oceanic research. The U.S. lodged a formal diplomatic complaint and demand the drone back. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun issued a statement late Saturday saying that a Chinese navy lifeboat discovered an unknown device in the South China Sea on Thursday.

“In order to prevent this device from posing a danger to the safe navigation of passing ships and personnel, the Chinese lifeboat adopted a professional and responsible attitude in investigating and verifying the device,” Yang said. The statement said that after verifying that the device was an American unmanned submerged device, “China decided to transfer it to the U.S. through appropriate means.”

The U.S. said that “through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return” the unmanned underwater vehicle, according to a statement from Peter Cook, spokesman for U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

The U.S. said China’s “unlawful seizure” came in international waters.

Yet China pointedly accused the U.S. of long sending ships “in China’s presence” to conduct “military surveying.”

“China is resolutely opposed to this and requests the U.S. stop such activities,” it said. “China will continue to maintain vigilance against the relevant U.S. activities and will take necessary measures to deal with them.”

Earlier Saturday, China’s foreign ministry said the country’s military was in contact with its American counterparts on “appropriately handling” the incident, though it offered no details on what discussions were underway.

The drone was seized while collecting unclassified scientific data about 92 kilometers (57 miles) northwest of Subic Bay near the Philippines in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday.

“It is ours. It’s clearly marked as ours. We would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again,” Davis told reporters. He said the drone costs about $150,000 and is largely commercial, off-the-shelf technology.

The USNS Bowditch, which is not a combat ship, was stopped in international waters Thursday afternoon and recovering two of the gliders when the Chinese ship approached, Davis said. The two vessels were within about 450 meters (500 yards) of each other. He said that the USNS Bowditch carries some small arms, but that no shots were fired.