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19:49 17 December 2016

U.S. demands China return drone "unlawfully seized" in S. China Sea

WASHINGTON/BEIJING, Dec. 17, Kyodo

The U.S. Defense Department said Friday it is demanding the immediate return of an underwater drone "unlawfully seized" by a Chinese warship in the South China Sea.

The United States has issued a complaint with China through diplomatic channels about the incident on Thursday and asked that such cases not be repeated, Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said.

China admitted Saturday that it had seized the underwater drone in the South China Sea, where tensions are already high due to territorial disputes and geopolitical rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

"It is understood that China and the United States are using military channels to properly deal with this," China's Foreign Ministry said in a faxed statement to Kyodo News, in response to a request to confirm the seizure and explain the latest situation.

The incident occurred in international waters 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, the Philippines, when a U.S. oceanographic survey ship was recovering two of the unmanned underwater vehicles, Davis told reporters.

The Chinese ship, which he said is a submarine rescue ship, launched a small boat and retrieved one of the two vehicles.

The Pentagon said in a statement that the Chinese ship wrongfully took the drone, which it said is part of an unclassified system used around the world to gather military oceanographic data such as salinity and sound speed.

The USNS Bowditch and the drone "were conducting routine operations in accordance with international law," the statement said.

"The UUV is a sovereign immune vessel of the United States. We call upon China to return our UUV immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law," it said.

At the time of the incident, the Bowditch contacted the Chinese ship via bridge-to-bridge radio and asked for the vehicle's return, the Pentagon said.

The radio contact "was acknowledged" by the Chinese ship, but "the request was ignored," it said.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, slammed the Chinese action as "a flagrant violation of the freedom of the seas" and "brazen provocation."

"We are not witnessing a China committed to a 'peaceful rise,'" McCain said in a statement. "Instead, we are confronting an assertive China that has demonstrated its willingness to use intimidation and coercion to disrupt the rules-based order that has been the foundation of security and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region for seven decades."

The United States and China have been at odds over the South China Sea, with Beijing maintaining its unilateral claim to almost the whole of the sea and Washington condemning Beijing's construction and militarization of island outposts in waters subject to territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors.

==Kyodo

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