China on Tuesday returned an underwater drone to the US, five days after it was seized from the disputed South China Sea waters leading to a major spat between President-elect Donald Trump and the Communist giant. 

b’Representational image |Source: AFP’

“After friendly consultations between the Chinese and US sides, the handover work for the US underwater drone was smoothly completed in relevant waters in the South China Sea at midday on December 20,” a brief Chinese Ministry statement said without providing details. The drone operated by a US survey vessel in the South China Sea (SCS) was seized by a Chinese navy ship which reportedly declined to hand it over despite request from the American ship. 

Initially, Chinese military said the drone incident would be handled in an appropriate manner but later stated it would be “resolved successfully” after Trump tweeted accusing Beijing of stealing the US drone. “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act,” Trump had tweeted. 

The next day he tweeted again to say, “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back – let them keep it!” China had rejected Trump’s charge that it “stole” the drone, saying the device was picked up to prevent “harm” to freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea, from where Beijing claims the US is spying on Chinese coast.

 “First of all we did not like the word stealing. This is also not accurate,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a media briefing yesterday. Hua also denied US allegations that the Chinese naval ship picked the drone up and took it away despite messages from the US survey ship USNS Bowditch which controlled the drone. 

“As really what happened you can see from Defence Ministry statement that the Chinese navy found this unidentified device and examined in a professional manner to verify it,” Hua said. “No matter how they see this unidentified device, most important thing is that Chinese navy took a professional and responsible decision to do this in order to prevent from causing harm to freedom of navigation,” she said.

 “I think this is easy to understand. Just imagine that you found something on the street and you to first check and verify it before handing it back to someone else. So I believe it is something easy to understand,” Hua said. US military said the drone was taken away from outside the nine dash line of the South China Sea. The line in the Chinese maps indicates China’s claims over the area, which is disputed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.