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00:14 18 December 2016

China accuses U.S. of raising tensions over S. China Sea drone issue

BEIJING/WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, Kyodo

China said Saturday it is "firmly opposed" to U.S. reconnaissance activities in the South China Sea and warned Washington that "hyping up" the issue of an underwater drone taken by a Chinese warship will not lead to a "smooth resolution."

In a statement released late night, China's Defense Ministry said Beijing has decided to return the drone to the United States through appropriate means and then urged Washington to stop surveillance activities in its nearby waters.

China's strong reaction came after the U.S. Defense Department said Friday the drone was "unlawfully seized" by China in the South China Sea and demanded its immediate return.

The United States 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.

A spokesman for the Chinese Defense Ministry admitted that Beijing 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.

China's Navy "found an unknown device" on Thursday afternoon and verified it in order to prevent it from affecting the safety of navigation, the spokesman, Yang Yujun, said.

"It is understood that China and the United States are using military channels to properly deal with this," China's Foreign Ministry said earlier 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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