20 Dec 2016

China returns US underwater drone

8:16 pm on 20 December 2016

A US underwater drone seized by China last week has been returned, the Pentagon has confirmed.

US surveying vessel, the USNS Bowditch, was collecting information about the waters off Subic Bay in international waters near the Philippines.

A file photo of the US surveying vessel, the USNS Bowditch, that deployed the drone that was seized near Subic Bay. Photo: AFP

The drone was handed over close to the location it was seized, some 92km north-west of Subic Bay in the Philippines.

A statement said the US would continue to "fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea" where international law allowed.

China captured the vessel in international waters last week, in one of the most serious confrontations between the powers in decades.

The incident triggered a diplomatic protest and speculation about whether it would strengthen US President-elect Donald Trump's hand as he sought a tougher line with Beijing.

A Chinese naval ship took the drone, which the Pentagon said used unclassified, commercially available technology to collect oceanographic data, on Thursday.

In a brief statement, China's Defence Ministry said the drone had been given back to the US.

"After friendly consultations between the Chinese and US sides, the handover work for the US underwater drone was smoothly completed in relevant waters in the South China Sea at midday on Dec 20," the ministry said in a short statement.

The defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for more details about the handover.

The Pentagon said the vehicle had been handed over to the guided missile destroyer USS Mustin near where it had been "unlawfully seized". It called on China to comply with international law and refrain from further efforts to impede lawful US activities.

"The US remains committed to upholding the accepted principles and norms of international law and freedom of navigation and overflight and will continue to fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea wherever international law allows," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.

The seizure has added to US concerns about China's growing military presence and aggressive posture in the disputed South China Sea, including its militarisation of maritime outposts.

China is deeply suspicious of any US military activities in the resource-rich South China Sea, with state media and experts saying the use of the drone was likely part of US surveillance efforts in the disputed waterway.

The US Navy has about 130 such underwater drones, made by Teledyne Webb, each weighing about 60kg and able to stay underwater for up to five months. They are used to collect unclassified data about oceans, including temperature and depth. They are used around the world, but it is unclear how many are used in the South China Sea.

- BBC / Reuters