South China Sea on a Boil
China Seizes US Drone In South China Sea

Long-simmering tensions over the South China Sea reached a boiling point on Friday with the report that China had seized a U.S. military drone. Reuters:

A Chinese warship has seized an underwater drone deployed by a U.S. oceanographic vessel in the South China Sea, triggering a formal diplomatic protest and a demand for its return, U.S. officials told Reuters on Friday.

The incident, the first of its kind in recent memory, took place on Dec. 15 about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay off the Philippines just as the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, was about to retrieve the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), officials said.

“The UUV was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water – that it was U.S. property,” the official said.

China’s move is a provocative power play that is sure to reverberate across a nervous Asia. Some experts suggest that the seizure is a reaction to President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with Taiwan’s President, and his questioning of the One China policy. The move could also be an effort to score points in the waning days of the Obama Administration, before a less pliant Trump Administration takes office. Most likely, China’s action is an attempt to kill two birds with one stone: it will play as a PR victory for Chinese nationalists at home, especially if Obama does not respond forcefully, and it is an early opportunity to test Trump’s own reaction to such a forceful gesture.

Regardless of how Obama or Trump respond, Beijing’s latest escalation offers another reminder of how rapidly tensions are rising in the South China Sea. Between China’s ongoing militarization of its artificial islands, parallel buildup by nervous neighbors like Vietnam, and a Jacksonian China hawk set to take office in the White House, temperatures are unlikely to cool any time soon. Expect the South China Sea to emerge as a crucial flashpoint as Beijing and Washington seek to test each other’s resolve in the years to come.

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