On Thursday, a Chinese ship took an American underwater drone in international waters. The Pentagon made an official declaration about the theft and demanded the drone’s immediate return on Friday.
“We call upon China to return our UUV immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law,” declared Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in an official statement. UUV stands for “unmanned underwater vehicle.”
Cook’s statement reported the theft in detail. It alleged that China “unlawfully seized” the vehicle before the USNS Bowditch could retrieve it. The UUV is “an unclassified ‘ocean glider’ system used around the world to gather military oceanographic data such as salinity, water temperature, and sound speed.”
According to the Pentagon, a Chinese ship launched a small boat, which seized the UUV and took it to their ship. “Bowditch made contact with the PRC Navy ship via bridge-to-bridge radio to request the return of the UUV,” Cook explained. “The radio contact was acknowledged by the PRC Navy ship, but the request was ignored.”
“This is an act of war against the United States,” Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, told Fox News. He said the theft constituted an act of war because China stole U.S. military property.
The theft took place about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines, Cook said in a statement.
China has made aggressive ownership claims in the South China Sea, setting up artificial islands and declaring the sea around them China’s sovereign territory. In the past few weeks, satellite photos have shown a significant military buildup on those islands. In June, an international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, invalidated China’s territorial claims.
While the U.S. consistently says it has no dog in the fight over such claims, America has conducted a series of high-profile freedom of navigation operations in disputed waters.
Relations with China have worsened following President-elect Donald Trump’s election. This month, Trump took a call from Tsai Ing-wen, president of Taiwan, a violation of China’s “One China policy,” which considers Taiwan part of China. China responded by expressing “serious concerns,” and by contacting the White House.
The Chinese government has not said whether the drone’s seizure is at all related to Trump’s call with Ing-wen.
China’s aggressive move also comes amid worsening relations between the U.S. and the Philippines. While the Philippines — a former U.S. colony — has been close with the U.S. for decades, bound by treaty, a rise in tensions between Manila and Beijing led to a growing U.S. military presence on the islands early this year.
The Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has signaled a shift away from the U.S. and toward China. Among other issues is Duterte’s war on drugs, which reportedly left more than 3,000 dead since he took over in June.
While this particular move is unlikely to lead to war, tensions with both China and the Philippines have worsened, and it will be up to Trump to deal with the sticky situation.