China Returns U.S. Navy Drone Seized In South China Sea

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The unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV, was deployed by the oceanographic survey ship USNS Bowditch (seen here in a U.S. Navy file photo). It was seized by a Chinese warship last week and returned to a U.S. warship Tuesday.

China's Defense Ministry says it has returned a U.S. underwater drone seized last week in the South China Sea. The handoff followed what China termed "friendly" talks between the two countries.

The U.S. acknowledged receipt of the drone but criticized China for seizing it in the first place. A statement from the Pentagon said the Chinese action was "inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea."

The Pentagon, pointedly, had a warship — the guided missile destroyer USS Mustin — take possession of the drone, which was operated by an unarmed survey vessel when it was seized.

As The Two-Way reported earlier:

"The Pentagon announced that the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, had watched as a Chinese warship deployed a small boat to snatch an 'ocean glider' — an unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV — from international waters in the South China Sea."

China, we reported, provided "its own narrative to describe a situation that American officials say has no recent precedent."

"In order to prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels, the Chinese naval lifeboat verified and examined the device in a professional and responsible manner," said a Chinese defense ministry spokesman, according to a translation from state-run Xinhua News.

The Chinese version of events is markedly different from the Pentagon's — U.S. officials say the Chinese ship was following the American vessel, and that the drone's origin wasn't in doubt.

U.S. officials say the unmanned drone was conducting ocean research when it was seized.

According to the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command, the Bowditch (named for American astronomer and navigator Nathaniel Bowditch) is a 20-year-old ship that has "an all-civilian crew of civil service mariners and scientific support personnel."

The swift return of the drone is a marked contrast from a 2001 incident when a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane was forced to make an emergency landing after it collided with a Chinese fighter jet. The Navy plane was returned to the U.S. dismembered and with its sophisticated electronics removed.

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An earlier version of this story referred to a 2001 incident in which a U.S. Navy plane was forced down by China after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet. In fact, the plane made an emergency landing.