U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said China should keep the unmanned underwater vehicle that it had “stolen” from the U.S. navy earlier, even as Pentagon confirmed plans by the Chinese to return it.
Trump claimed on Twitter that the U.S. no longer wanted the drone back, his second comment on the incident that risks further inflaming Washington’s ties with Beijing.
We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2016
He had earlier categorised the seizure as “unprecedented”, although he misspelled the word first as “unpresidented” and was instantly mocked by Internet users.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) December 17, 2016
Among the many comments and deprecatory reports, the incoming U.S. president was labelled spelling-challenged, advised to hire a copy editor or ask Siri for help.
— fatalberton (@fatalberton) December 17, 2016
— Erick Fernandez (@ErickFernandez) December 17, 2016
It took Trump and his team 87 minutes to fix the word "unpresidented." pic.twitter.com/Bz7NxSqwlo
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) December 17, 2016
The media was equally unforgiving, reporting the gaffe that was later corrected on Twitter.
— The Straits Times (@STcom) December 17, 2016
Donald Trump has hit out at the Chinese seizure of a US drone in international waters as an "unpresidented act" https://t.co/p34JTcvXkI
— Sky News (@SkyNews) December 17, 2016
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) December 17, 2016
On a more serious note, a report by The Guardian pointed out that Trump’s message itself was without precedent, “given his status as a president-elect commenting on an international incident before assuming power”. The UK daily added that Trump’s outburst would likely worsen fears of increased U.S.-China tensions under his presidency.
Later Saturday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook confirmed that the Chinese had agreed to return the drone.
“We have registered our objection to China’s unlawful seizure of a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle operating in international waters in the South China Sea.
“Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV to the United States,” he was quoted by CNN as saying in a statement.
No details have emerged so far on how or when the vehicle will be returned. But Trump’s comments, and his interference in the dispute, could throw a spanner in the works for negotiations.
Despite agreeing to return the drone, the Chinese had earlier slammed the U.S. for hyping up the incident, which it complained was not helping matters any.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun in comments translated by state-owned Xinhua news late Saturday said: The U.S. side’s unilateral move to dramatise the issue in the process is inappropriate, and not conducive to its settlement. We regret that.”
Yang also explained the Dec 15 seizure in greater detail. He claimed when the Chinese naval lifeboat located an unidentified device in the waters of the South China Sea, it seized it to “prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels”.
He also insisted that the device was inspected in a “professional and responsible manner”.
A U.S. defence official, however, told a slightly different version of the story to CNN. The broadcast channel’s report said the U.S. USNS Bowditch had stopped to pick up two underwater drones when the Chinese ship lowered its boat and took one of the vehicles in the incident about 100 miles off the Philippine port at Subic bay.
The official reportedly told CNN that the Chinese did not immediately respond on the radio when they were told the drone was American property. When they came on later, it was only to say they were returning to their own operations.
According to reports, the drone was merely a research vehicle surveying ocean conditions.
Yang in his statement, however, reiterated China’s objection to U.S. operations in the disputed territory, saying:
“It is worth emphasising that for a long time, the U.S. military has frequently dispatched vessels and aircraft to carry out close-in reconnaissance and military surveys within Chinese waters.
“China resolutely opposes these activities, and demands that the U.S. side should stop such activities.
“China will continue to be vigilant against the relevant activities on the U.S. side, and will take necessary measures in response.”
The drone incident has fuelled concerns about China’s increased military presence in the disputed South China Sea waters, through which some US$5 trillion worth of trade passes through every year.
According to U.S. think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, new satellite imagery show that China has installed weapons such as anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on all seven of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea, a Reuters report said this week.