The Chinese navy has reportedly seized a U.S. Navy unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) in the South China Sea, adding a new layer of tension to the two countries’ uneasy relationship. According to several reports, China deployed a boat on Dec. 15 to capture the vehicle in waters 50-100 nautical miles northwest of the Philippines’ Subic Bay port, just before the USNS Bowditch was preparing to retrieve the UUV. U.S. defense officials have said that Washington has requested, through the appropriate diplomatic channels, that Beijing return the vehicle. The incident comes amid increasingly harsh rhetoric between Chinese leaders and the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, though frictions have been worsening between Washington and Beijing for years as the United States has sought to counter Chinese expansionism in the disputed waters.
The USNS Bowditch, a Pathfinder-class survey ship under the Naval Oceanographic Office’s Maritime Sealift Command, is routinely deployed to survey and map the ocean floor. Though this mission is ostensibly civilian in nature, the data the ship collects also has useful military applications that are particularly relevant for submarine navigation. In its demand for the UUV’s safe return, the United States asserted that the vehicle had been captured in international waters.
A similar dispute arose in 2009 when Chinese naval, maritime security and fishing vessels trailed and harassed the USNS Impeccable. The Impeccable, also a U.S. Navy maritime surveillance ship, was using towed arrays to map the seafloor and, as Washington later admitted, to track the paths of Chinese submarines. During the incident, a Chinese fishing boat tried to grapple the sonar dragging behind the U.S. ship. But there are two major differences between the 2009 and 2016 spats. First, in the most recent case, China nabbed a U.S. naval vessel, even if it was unmanned. Second, it did so far from Chinese shores. (In 2009, the Impeccable was underway near Hainan Island, the main base for Beijing’s nuclear submarines.)
The latest episode appears to be a fairly bold move on China’s part. By taking physical action in the South China Sea, Beijing could be trying to assert its claims in the contested waters, many of which were likely undermined by the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against China’s artificial island construction. That said, based on statements by U.S. defense officials, the incident supposedly occurred more than 50 nautical miles from the Scarborough Shoal, China’s nearest territorial claim. China is also, of course, attempting to address more direct security concerns. The underwater mapping that the Bowditch would have been engaged in can be used to support U.S. anti-submarine operations by identifying submarines’ most likely paths and, in doing so, improve the targeting and efficacy of anti-submarine monitoring and patrols.
China’s decision to take the UUV will certainly ratchet up tensions with the United States, though not to the same extent as in 2001, when Beijing held the crew members of a downed U.S. aircraft on Hainan Island. That incident, however, was accidental (even if Chinese jets were closely shadowing U.S. aircraft). This week’s was not. The premeditated move may have been a calculated signal of China’s willingness to pressure the United States, should Washington reconsider its recognition of Taiwan as it has hinted it may. Beijing may also be indicating that it has no intention of backing down from its assertive tactics in the South China Sea.
In the United States, the incident will no doubt inflame the heated political debate about how best to manage Washington’s relations to China in the years ahead, particularly as Trump prepares to take office. Meanwhile, for Southeast Asian states already struggling to safeguard their maritime interests, their positions in the disputed waters will only grow more precarious. Given the location of the capture and China’s blatant actions, according to U.S. allegations, the U.S. Navy will probably be compelled to respond by stepping up its presence in the South China Sea and providing armed escorts to U.S. surveillance vessels. This, in turn, could give rise to more posturing and harassment operations from China as Beijing pushes back against Washington’s growing footprint in the Asia-Pacific region.