Friday, December 16, 2016

China seizes an US owned underwater drone.

USNS Bowditch, a research ship involved in the incident. Reuters. 

The Chinese Navy has seized a US underwater drone in a major international incident. Reuters. The drone was taken 50 nautical miles north of Subic Bay in the Philippines. The drone, or underwater unnamed vehicle (UUV) was participating in a survey mission for the Navy along with a 2nd drone. While the 2nd drone was being retrieved by it's home ship, the USNS Bowditch, the Chinese Type 922 salvage ship stole the drone. The theft comes on the heals heightened tensions with China. China has been expanding their control of the South China Sea by building up islands and placing airports and air defenses on them. President elect Donald Trump has also raised eyebrows by receiving a phone call from Taiwan. 

My Comment:
Not sure what game the Chinese are playing here but it's not a good sign. The Chinese have been playing fast and loose with the rules when it comes to maritime encounters. They have been very aggressive in pushing their claims in the South China Sea so this incident isn't that surprising. 

I do have to wonder what China gains by stealing this UUV. It wasn't worth much and the technology is publicly available anyways. It's not like they need to reverse engineer the technology or anything. They could just order one themselves and avoid all the trouble this incident could cause. 

My guess is that there are a few scenarios of why the Chinese did this. 

1. The government is lying and this drone is more advanced then they are saying. I guess this is possible and would explain why the Chinese would be willing to take the risk. I don't think it is very likely though. 

2. The Chinese didn't realize that the drone was something that is publicly available. The captain of the the salvage ship may have thought that the drone was more valuable and useful then it actually is. 

3. The Chinese simply screwed up and didn't realize what they had was US property. This was a salvage ship after all and they may have though the drone was something that had been abandoned.

4. This was a deliberate provocation and was cleared by higher ups in the Chinese chain of command. The Chinese have been saber rattling for quite some time now and it wouldn't be surprising if they were continuing to do so. 

I think the 4th option is the most likely. The Chinese have been throwing their weight around for years now. They consider the South China Sea to be a sovereign part of Chinese territory and have been long interfering and harassing other countries at sea. Stealing  drone certainly doesn't seem like it would be unprecedented considering their behavior in the past. 

The Reuters article made it sound like this was due in part to Trump's conversation with the president of Taiwan. I guess that could be part of it but you would think if they were going to test Donald Trump they would have waited until he was actually in office to do so. The saber rattling may have gotten worse because of his statements but I doubt it was the only factor, or even a major one. 

My guess is that no matter what is happening with Donald Trump, China was going to respond to this drone operating in what they consider their waters. Though the drone was on a scientific mission, the data they collected has military uses. Gathering that information in water the Chinese consider theirs was probably considered a provocation by the Chinese.  

In the end though this incident will probably be a footnote. I doubt anything much will come from it. The US will complain but in the end nothing much will happen because of this. There is always a chance that the right spark could launch a conflict in the South China Sea but this incident isn't it. 

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