China just seized an unmanned underwater vehicle operated by the US Navy, according to reports from Reuters. The seizure occurred in the South China Sea yesterday, and the US has since demanded that the vehicle be returned.
Reuters is reporting that the vehicle was seized just northwest of the Subic Bay, shortly before the USNS Bowditch was about to pick up the unmanned vehicle. Reuters characterizes the Navy ship that was going to intercept the unmanned vehicle as an “oceanographic survey ship,” and the BBC quotes an unnamed Navy source as saying that the unmanned vehicle is “used to test water salinity and temperature.”
The seizure is unprecedented in the South China Sea and will likely only increase the tensions that have been simmering following President-elect Donald Trump’s call to the president of Taiwan. China doesn’t recognize Taiwan as an independent state, and the call was seen as a hostile move, knowingly or not, against future diplomatic relations with China.
The US made some provocative statements about the disputed South China Sea this week. Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, gave a speech in Sydney, Australia on Wednesday where he said that the Navy was ready if China decides to become “aggressive.”
“We will not allow a shared domain to be closed down unilaterally no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea,” Admiral Harris said. “We will cooperate when we can but we will be ready to confront when we must.”
On a related note, China has placed weapons on disputed islands in the South China Sea, which the US military has seen as a threat to stability in the region.
“As for necessary military facilities, they are primarily for defense and self-protection, and this is proper and legitimate,” the Chinese Defense Ministry said about the weapons on the islands. “For instance, if someone was at the door of your home, cocky and swaggering, how could it be that you wouldn’t prepare a slingshot?”
It’s unclear as of yet how China will respond to US demands for the unmanned underwater vehicle back.