China's Defense Ministry says it has returned a U.S. underwater drone seized last week in the South China Sea. The hand-off followed what China termed "friendly" talks between the two countries.
In a statement from the Pentagon, the U.S. acknowledged receipt of the drone but criticized China for the seizure.
The U.S. 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 The Two-Way's Bill Chappell 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.
Bill reported that China 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 down by China after it collided with a Chinese fighter jet. The Navy plane was returned to the U.S. dismembered and with its sophisticated electronics removed.