The United States has issued a formal request to China to deliver an unmanned underwater drone that was seized in international waters.
According to the US officials, the Chinese navy seized the US underwater research vessel in the South China Sea on Thursday.
The incident occurred as the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, was about to retrieve it.
The officials say the device, dubbed an “ocean glider”, was used to test water salinity and temperature.
Pentagon spokesman Capt Jeff Davis told reporters that the data was part of an unclassified programme to map underwater channels “taken” by China.
“The UUV [unmanned underwater vehicle] was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea.
“It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water – that it was US property.”
The Chinese seizure of a US navy drone will increase uncertainty and tension between the US and China, coming in the same week as a US think tank published satellite images of anti-aircraft missiles on China’s artificial islands in the South China Seas and in the aftermath of remarks from US President-elect Donald Trump criticising China for building what he called a “massive fortress” in the region.
Despite previous statements that China had no intention of militarising the islands, the Chinese Defence Ministry defended what it described as “necessary military facilities” which it called “proper and legitimate”.
Since Mr Trump questioned the so-called “One China” policy which Beijing describes as the ‘political bedrock’ of the US China relationship, China has also mounted fighter exercises over the Taiwan Strait.
The Obama administration has reaffirmed what it called its “unwavering commitment” to the “One China” policy but the seizure of a US navy drone may be Beijing’s way of sending a message to the incoming administration that it too has ways of disrupting expectations and upsetting the status quo.
HOW THE DRONE WAS SEIZED
According to the US officials, the drone was seize in the South China Sea about 50 miles (80km) northwest of Subic Bay.