* UUV operated by U.S. ship picked up by Chinese vessel on
* China says in "unimpeded" discussions with U.S. over
* Philippines says deeply troubled by incident close to its
(Adds quotes, details from Philippine defence minister and
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman)
By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING, Dec 19 The Chinese and U.S. militaries
are having "unimpeded" talks about the return of U.S. underwater
drone taken by a Chinese naval vessel in the South China Sea
last week, China's foreign ministry said on Monday.
The drone, known as an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV),
was taken on Thursday in waters off the coast of the
Philippines, the first seizure of its kind in recent memory.
The Pentagon went public with its complaint about the
incident and said on Saturday it had secured a deal to get the
drone back. China's defence ministry had earlier accused
Washington of hyping up the issue.
"What I can tell you is that at present, China and the
United States are using unimpeded military channels to
appropriately handle this issue," foreign ministry spokeswoman
Hua Chunying told a regular briefing.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who has vowed to take a
more aggressive approach in dealing with China over its economic
and military policies, jumped on the unusual seizure with a pair
of provocative tweets over the weekend, accusing Beijing of
stealing the equipment.
Asked about Trump's comments, Hua said describing the drone
as stolen was "completely incorrect".
"The key is that China's navy had a responsible and
professional attitude to identify and ascertain this object,"
she said. "If you discover or pick something up from the street
you have to examine it and if somebody asks you for it you have
to work out if it's theirs before you can give it back."
The drone, which the Pentagon said was operating lawfully
was collecting data about the salinity, temperature and clarity
of the water about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, off
The Philippines said the occurrence of the incident inside
its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) was "very troubling".
"Not only does it increase the likelihood of miscalculations
that could lead to open confrontation very near the Philippine
mainland but the commission of activities other than innocent
passage which impinge upon the right of the Philippines over the
resources in its EEZ are violations of the Philippines rights
over its EEZ," Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana said in a
China is deeply suspicious of any U.S. military activities
in the resource-rich South China Sea, with state media and
experts saying the use of the drone was likely part of U.S.
surveillance efforts in the disputed waterway.
The overseas edition of the ruling Communist Party's
People's Daily said in a commentary on Monday the USNS Bowditch,
which was operating the drone, was a "serial offender" when it
came to spying operations against China.
"The downplaying of the actions of the drone cannot cover up
the real intentions in the background," it said. "This drone
which floated to the surface in the South China Sea is the tip
of the iceberg of U.S. military strategy, including towards
The USNS Bowditch is an "infamous" military reconnaissance
ship that has been surveying China's coastal waters since 2002,
said Ma Gang, a professor at the People's Liberation Army
National Defence University, told the official China Daily.
"Oceanic data is crucial for ship formations, submarine
routes and battle planning," Ma said. "Therefore, it is normal
for the Chinese Navy to be suspicious of Bowditch's activities
given past experience."
According to Chinese state media, the same ship was involved
in incidents in 2001 and 2002 when it was shadowed by Chinese
navy ships while operating in the Yellow Sea. Chinese media say
it has also operated in the sensitive Taiwan Straits.
Ni Lexiong, a naval expert, Shanghai University of Political
Science and Law, told Reuters he believed the Chinese navy
probably had orders to take the drone.
But Ni said this is a very different incident from the 2001
intercept of a U.S. spy plane by a Chinese fighter jet that
resulted in a collision that killed the Chinese pilot and forced
the American plane to make an emergency landing at a base on
"This is a much smaller incident, it won't affect the
overall picture of China-U.S. relations," he said, adding that
he did not expect China to seek an apology from the U.S.
The 24 U.S. air crew members were held for 11 days before
being released, souring U.S.-Chinese relations in the early days
of President George W. Bush's first administration.
(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by