A Chinese naval warship has "unlawfully" seized an American underwater drone in the South China Sea, and the United States is demanding its immediate return, the US Defense Department said Friday.
The incident occurred Thursday in international waters 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, the Philippines, when a US oceanographic survey ship was recovering the unmanned underwater vehicle, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The two countries have been at odds over the South China Sea, with China maintaining its unilateral claim to almost the whole of the sea and the United States condemning Beijing's construction and militarization of island outposts in waters under dispute with its smaller neighbors.
The USNS Bowditch and the vehicle -- an unclassified system used around the world to gather military oceanographic data such as salinity and sound speed -- "were conducting routine operations in accordance with international law," according to the statement.
The Chinese ship launched a small boat and "unlawfully seized" the drone, it said.
"The UUV is a sovereign immune vessel of the United States. We call upon China to return our UUV immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law."
At the time of the incident, the Bowditch contacted the Chinese ship via bridge-to-bridge radio and asked for the vehicle's return, according to the Pentagon.
The radio contact "was acknowledged" by the Chinese ship, but "the request was ignored," it said.
Source: Philippines News Agency