China steals U.S. research drone in South China Sea in front of its crew


In yet another sign of the deteriorating relationship between China and the United States, on Friday U.S. officials confirmed that the Chinese confiscated a non-military underwater drone in international waters in the South China Sea a day before. The USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, had released two of the drones in the water to measure ocean conditions.

According to Pentagon spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis, the Bowditch stopped to retrieve the drones. Shortly after, a Chinese naval ship that had been shadowing the Bowditch moved to within 500 yards and put a boat into the water. The Chinese boat then pulled up alongside one of the drones and confiscated it.

More: Everything you need to know about China’s artificial islands

Calls to the Chinese ship to return the drone to the Bowditch went unanswered, however at one point as the naval ship pulled away the Chinese radioed that they were returning to their own operations. “The [drone] was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea,” Davis said. “It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water that it was U.S. property.”

Chinese surveillance of non-military operations like the Bowditch is commonplace, as the country suspects these vessels of spying. What is not is the confiscation of U.S. assets. “This is not the sort of conduct we expect from professional navies,” Davis added.

From time to time, non-military ships sailing close to Chinese waters have had trouble. In 2009, the USNS Impeccable was harassed by a group of Chinese ships during a research mission. The Chinese Coast Guard have been accused of ramming fishing vessels from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and others according to reports.

Again, those incidents didn’t involve stealing property, but rather a seemingly heavy-handed policy of harassment.

It’s difficult to say what provoked the Chinese to take such actions. The relationship with China during the Obama administration has been tenuous at best, and Donald Trump’s early actions as President-elect — most notably his conversations with Taiwan — have attracted the ire of Beijing. But the country itself has made moves to militarize the South China Sea despite protests from the U.S.

Further evidence of that came in the form of a report from the bipartisan Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which claimed the Chinese had installed military equipment including anti-aircraft artillery, on man-made islands built in contested waters.