China is expected to return the U.S. Navy underwater research drone seized last week off the Philippines as soon as Tuesday, U.S. officials say. The handover is expected to occur near Scarborough Shoal, one of the flash points in the South China Sea.
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The underwater "Ocean Glider" drone is expected to be handed over to a U.S. Navy destroyer by the same Chinese Navy ship that seized it last week, according to a U.S. defense official.
The official says there are no indications that the drone was ever taken off the Chinese Navy ship, a Dalang III (ASR-510), which took the drone.
The ship was apparently headed westward to China when it turned back on Sunday to head east towards Scarborough Shoal.
Noting Chinese sensitivities about the incident, a U.S. official would only characterize the timing of the handover as taking place "soon."
“We continue to engage with Chinese officials on the details and timing of the safe return of the [drone]. Those conversations are ongoing,” Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said at a Pentagon briefing Monday.
Cook said logistical details are being worked out with China “through appropriate channels” for the return of the drone that he characterized as having been "illegally seized"
“This was an underwater vehicle doing something that we've done before,' said Cook. "It's an unclassified program. And we want the vehicle back and we're working to arrange that.”
“We're working to seek the return of this vehicle as quickly as possible and we're trying to execute that now," said Cook. "This is a vehicle that should never have left U.S. possession.”
He declined to provide a timeline for the handover.
A defense official said there are two plausible scenarios for how the drone could be returned. One option would be to have two small boats exchange the drone at sea while the other would be for the Chinese vessel place the drone in the water so it could be recovered by the American destroyer.
Over the weekend, the Pentagon announced that "an understanding" had been secured with China for the return of the underwater drone.
The drone was seized Thursday 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines by the crew of a Chinese naval vessel that had been shadowing the USNS Bowditch, a U.S Navy oceanographic vessel that had been conducting research in the area.
The American ship was in the process of recovering one of two unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). The UUV was "gathering military oceanographic data such as salinity, water temperature and sound speed ... in accordance with international law," Cook said Friday.
A small boat that was launched from the Chinese Navy warship took the other drone from the water and brought it to the Chinese vessel.
The American crew contacted the Chinese vessel by radio multiple times, demanding the return of the drone. The demands were ignored, the Pentagon said.
The only response the Chinese vessel gave was, "We are returning to normal operations," as it pulled away from the Bowditch, according to the Pentagon.
"The UUV is a sovereign immune vessel of the United States," Cook said Friday. "We call upon China to return our UUV immediately and to comply with all of its obligations under international law."
The South China Sea has become a focal point for China, the United States and other countries in the region.
China has claimed seven reefs in the Spratly Island chain as its own, essentially dredging them into islands. There are also territorial claims over the Paracel Islands located east of Vietnam and the Scarborough Shoal, 200 miles west of the Philippines.
New satellite imagery released publicly by a Washington think tank last week seems to indicate that China has begun placing military defenses on the artificial islands it has built up in the Spratly Islands.