A Chinese naval warship seized a U.S. Navy unmanned underwater vehicle. The United States has issued an official diplomatic protest and demanded the immediate return of the submarine. The move is an unprecedented escalation of tensions in the South China Sea.
The underwater drone was deployed by the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship. The craft is used to test water salinity and ocean temperature. It is being used in a project to map underwater channels. The Bowditch was enroute to pick up the unmanned sub when the drone was seized about 50 nautical miles north of Subic Bay in the Philippines.
Tensions in the South China Sea have been rising steadily for the last couple of years, as China continues to build airstrips and military facilities on artificial islands that the nation constructed on top of atolls and reefs. The People’s Republic claims 12 nautical miles of sovereign waters around the islands, as is afforded to nations, though the region is considered international waters by the U.S. and its allies, including Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and Australia.
“We will not allow a shared domain to be closed down unilaterally no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea,” said Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, in a speech given in Sydney, Australia, just a day before the U.S. drone was seized. “We will cooperate when we can, but we will be ready to confront when we must.”
The imminent inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump adds another source of tension to the dispute over the South China Sea. Trump’s call with Taiwan earlier this month was viewed by China as a hostile move, prompting the nation to issue a formal complaint. China does not recognize Taiwan as an independent state.