China Returns U.S. Drone Seized in South China Sea

U.S. destroyer South China Sea
A U.S. destroyer operates in the South China Sea as part of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) in the South China Sea on October 13. China has returned a U.S. drone seized in the disputed region. Courtesy Diana Quinlan/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters

China has returned a U.S. submarine drone that it seized in the disputed South China Sea, according to a statement from the Chinese defense ministry.

A Chinese naval vessel seized the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) on Thursday about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, in a part of the sea that is administered by the Philippines.

The Pentagon said the drone was operating lawfully in international waters and was clearly marked as U.S. property, and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump accused China on Saturday of "stealing" the drone. Beijing said that it had taken the drone to examine it, believing that it may have posed a threat to passing vessels and said that Washington had "hyped up" the incident.

The defense ministry statement said that after "friendly consultations," the UUV had been handed over around midday local time on Tuesday.

The South China Sea is a contested region, with China claiming territorial rights over most of the sea but other smaller countries—including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan—all having competing claims.

The United States said that it would continue to "fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea" where permitted by international law.

The incident may provide a preview of how China-U.S. relations will progress once Trump takes office on January 20. Trump has adopted a more aggressive tone towards Beijing, accusing China of building a "massive military complex" in the South China Sea and of purposefully devaluing its currency, making it harder for U.S. companies to compete with Chinese manufacturers.

The U.S. president-elect also accepted a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the first of its kind in over 40 years. Beijing considers Taiwan to be a rogue breakaway province and the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it had lodged "stern representations" with the United States over the call.