Tensions remain over China’s seizure of a US underwater drone, even after both countries said China will return the device.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) called China’s action a “gross violation of international law” in an interview on CNN Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reports.
McCain, the chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, also criticized the United States over the incident, suggesting its policies have been emboldening countries such as China and Iran.
“There’s no strength on the part of the United States of America. Everybody’s taking advantage of it. And hopefully that will change soon,” the newspaper quoted McCain as saying.
Both countries said on Saturday that China will return the submersible seized on Thursday in the South China Sea.
US President-elect Donald Trump, who has vowed to take an aggressive approach in dealing with China over its economic and military policies, jumped on the unusual drone seizure with a pair of provocative tweets, accusing Beijing of stealing the equipment, Reuters reports.
The drone, known as an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), was taken on Thursday, the first seizure of its kind in recent memory.
The Pentagon went public with its complaint after the action and said on Saturday it had secured a deal to get the drone back.
“Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV to the United States,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement.
The drone, which the Pentagon said was operating lawfully was collecting data about the salinity, temperature and clarity of the water about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, off the Philippines.
It was seized just as the USNS Bowditch was about to retrieve it, US officials said.
China’s Defense Ministry said a Chinese naval vessel discovered a piece of “unidentified equipment” and checked it to prevent any navigational safety issues before discovering it was a US drone.
“China decided to return it to the US side in an appropriate manner, and China and the US have all along been in communication about it,” the ministry said on its website.
“During this process, the US side’s unilateral and open hyping up is inappropriate, and is not beneficial to the smooth resolution of this issue. We express regret at this,” it added.
Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, waded into the dispute on Twitter early on Saturday from his seaside resort club Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, where he plans to spend the holidays.
“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act,” he said.
After China said it would return the drone, Jason Miller, a spokesman for Trump, tweeted a link to a news story, saying: “@realdonaldtrump gets it done.”
There was, however, no evidence that Trump had played any role, Reuters said. US officials said the negotiations took place in Beijing during the overnight hours in the United States. Miller did not respond to requests for comment.
Hours later, while riding in a motorcade back to his resort, Trump tweeted his second jab. “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back – let them keep it!” he said.
The drone incident has raised fresh concerns about China’s increased military presence and aggressive posture in the energy-rich South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion in trade is shipped every year, the news agency said.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to the waterway.
New satellite imagery shows China has installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea, a US research group said last week.
Without directly saying whether the US drone was operating in waters Beijing considers its own, China’s Defense Ministry said US ships and aircraft have for a long period been carrying out surveillance and surveys in “the presence” of Chinese waters.
“China is resolutely opposed to this, and demands the US stops this kind of activity,” it said.
McCain said China may be poring over the seized underwater drone to unearth secret information about Navy technology, according to Bloomberg.
“The Chinese are able to do a thing called reverse-engineering, where they are able to – while they hold this drone, able to find out all of the technical information. And some of it is pretty valuable,” he said on CNN.
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