China pledges to return U.S. sea vessel to Pentagon in ‘appropriate manner’

China has expanded small land formations it controls in the South China Sea, piling sand onto outcroppings and building landing strips. The land reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands is seen here in 2015.
(Ritchie B. Tongo / Associated Press)

China agreed Saturday to return an American sea drone it had captured after the Pentagon demanded it back, defusing tensions at the end of a week of confrontations over Beijing’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

China’s Defense Ministry said it would return “in an appropriate manner” the U.S. sea vessel seized this week by the Chinese navy.

But the ministry also accused the U.S. of “public hyping” that was “not conducive to solving the problem smoothly.” Chinese officials did not specify what happened or when Beijing would hand back the device.


The ministry, in a statement, said that the device was unidentified when found and that officials later concluded it was an American drone.

The Pentagon on Friday demanded the return of the equipment, which officials said was gathering scientific data near the Philippines when it was taken. The U.S. issued a formal protest, and the open hostility threatened to further strain relations as China expands its claims in the South China Sea and prepares for a new U.S. president whose policy on the region remains unclear.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook on Saturday affirmed China’s actions, saying the U.S. came to an understanding that Beijing would return the drone “through direct engagement.”

Just before both sides made their announcements, President-elect Donald Trump condemned the seizure in a tweet. “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act,” he wrote, deleting an initial tweet that said “unpresidented.”

China’s statement followed a pledge this week by Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, to confront Chinese aggression in the contested waters, and a Washington think tank’s publication of satellite photos that show Chinese militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The standoff began Thursday when a Chinese ship snatched the unmanned vehicle off the Philippine coast, in the midst of an effort by the U.S. survey ship Bowditch to retrieve it.

“It is ours,” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis told reporters on Friday. “We would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again.”

Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.

Meyers is a special correspondent.

Twitter: @jessicameyers


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