China has agreed to return a U.S. underwater-research drone, which it had seized in international waters on Thursday. “Upon confirming that the device was a U.S. underwater drone, the Chinese side decided to transfer it to the U.S. side in an appropriate manner,” a spokesperson for the country’s defense ministry said on Saturday, though China also complained that the U.S. had “unilaterally hyped up the issue.” Along those lines, President-elect Donald Trump criticized the incident via Twitter on Saturday morning, explaining that China “rips it out of the water and takes it back to China in unpresidented act.” Trump’s tweet, the misspelling later corrected, followed an earlier demand by the Pentagon for China to return the “unlawfully seized” drone.
Once China agreed to give it back and the Pentagon confirmed, President-elect Trump seemed annoyed with the diplomatic dance between the U.S. and one of the world’s only other superpowers, tweeting on Saturday night that “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”
The Washington Post reports that one of China’s Communist Party–controlled newspapers, the Global Times, ridiculed America’s mixed messages on Sunday, referring to Trump’s “generous announcement that he didn’t want the drone back,” while wondering aloud, “We don’t know, after seeing Trump’s new tweets, if the Pentagon should feel boggled.”
As CNN points out, it’s not entirely clear what the Chinese hoped to accomplish by grabbing the drone (they claimed on Saturday that it was to ensure the “safe navigation of passing ships”), but the move fits into a pattern of provocations undertaken by the Chinese regime since Trump and Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen participated in a phone call which upended decades of U.S. diplomatic precedent with China. That call violated the “One China Policy” that China insists foreign governments adhere to when it comes to dealing with Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway state. The call, which led to an official complaint from the Chinese government, was most likely co-ordinated by pro-Taiwan advisors within Trump’s transition team. Trump has since said that he feels no need to respect the One China Policy, even though the threat of Taiwanese independence is arguably the foreign-policy issue that is most important to Beijing.
In addition to the seizing of the underwater drone, last week China flew a nuclear-capable bomber over its disputed islands in the South China Sea, islands on which it has also reportedly been installing surface-to-air missile systems.
According to the U.S., the boosted research drone was measuring ocean conditions for the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy research ship, which supports “worldwide oceanography programs, including performing acoustical, biological, physical and geophysical surveys.” Such vessels, when operating in the South China Sea, are apparently routinely followed by China under the assumption that they are spying.
This post has been updated to include Trump’s second comment on the matter.