Pentagon Announces China Agrees to Return Seized Drone, Ending Standoff
Saturday, Pentagon said that Beijing had agreed to return an underwater drone seized by China in international waters, an indication that the two countries were moving to resolve an unusual incident that risked sharpening tensions in the run-up to the inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump.
"Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the U.U.V. to the United States," said Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, using initials to refer to the Navy's unmanned underwater vehicle.
Mr. Cook said the deal had been reached after the United States "registered our objection to China's unlawful seizure of a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle operating in international waters in the South China Sea."
The Chinese authorities told American officials that they planned to return the drone, but the two sides were still working out where, when and precisely how the device would be handed back, said two Defense Department officials, both of whom would talk about the negotiations with China only on the condition of anonymity. One of the officials said the Pentagon expected the matter to be resolved in the coming days without further acrimony.
The Pentagon statement came hours after China warned that the highly charged episode would not be resolved easily.
In a statement late Saturday, the Chinese Defense Ministry said it was in talks with the United States but criticized Washington for what it called an "inappropriate" exaggeration of the dispute. The American reaction, it said, is "not conducive to solving the problem smoothly."
"We hereby express regrets for that," it said.
Although the ministry said the drone would be returned to the United States in a "proper way," the statement stopped short of saying when or how the device, which Chinese and American analysts say was most likely used to gather intelligence about Chinese submarine activity in contested waters, would be returned, or if it would be handed back intact.
President-elect Donald J. Trump entered the fray Saturday morning, accusing China on Twitter of acting improperly. "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.
The overseas edition of The People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, said on its social media account Saturday night that the Chinese capture of the drone was legal because rules about drone activities had not been clearly written. "This is the gray area," the newspaper said. "If the U.S. military can send the drone, surely China can seize it."
In its statement, the Defense Ministry scolded the United States over what it called its longstanding practice of conducting "close-in reconnaissance and military surveys" in waters claimed by China. The Chinese government has often complained to senior American officials, including President Obama, that the United States repeatedly intrudes by air and ship into waters close to China. The ministry's statement reiterated the complaint, saying "China firmly opposes it and urges the U.S. side to stop such operations."
A Chinese naval vessel seized the drone, which had been launched on Thursday from an American ship, the Bowditch, in waters off the Philippines. The American crew was in the process of retrieving the device when a small boat dispatched from the Chinese vessel took it as the American sailors looked on.