A U.S. Navy underwater drone seized by a Chinese warship last week was returned Tuesday (Dec. 20), leaving unanswered the question of why it was intercepted in the first place.
The drone, a $150,000 Seaglider, had been launched by the USNS Bowditch about 50 nautical miles from Subic Bay in international waters off the shores of the Philippines in the South China Sea.
After U.S. requests, it was returned to the USS Mustin near where it was picked up.
The Seaglider is the creation of Kongsberg Underwater Technologies Inc. (KUTI, Lynnwood, Wash.), which has been licensing it for manufacture for over a decade. The University of Washington, for instance, licenses it to perform underwater surveys for environmental reasons. Possible surveys include mapping oxygen “dead zones,” salinity levels, conductivity, temperature, pressure, content spectroscopy and radar backscatter to create depth maps as well as plain old photography. The Seaglider houses enough battery energy to stay submerged with powered sensors for about nine months.
However, the U.S. Navy can equip its Seaglider’s with whatever sensor arrays it wishes, allowing it to count ships, survey Chinese underwater defenses, photograph their warships’ underwater characteristics — such as torpedo tubes — leaving open the possibility that the Chinese wanted to seize the U.S. underwater drone in order to erase its memory of something it might have observed on the Chinese ship.
The popular media, however, immediately began speculating that its seizure was politically motivated by president-elect Trump’s snubbing of the “One China” policy adhered to by most of the world.
The One-China policy usually entails recognizing only the mainland communist government as “China” and neither recognizing Taiwan as a government-in-exile nor as an independent nation. The Taiwanese government, driven to Taiwan during Mao’s communist revolution, also still claims the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau as a government-in-exile. As a result, most foreign governments choose between the two as the “real” Chinese government. Today, only a handful of countries recognize Taiwan as the legitimate One-China government, whereas 37 European countries reject the One-China policy by maintaining diplomatic relations with both governments.
The U.S. switched allegiance from Taiwan as a government-in-exile to the communist mainland as the legitimate One-China government in 1979. On December 2, president-elect Trump accepted a telephone call from the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, prompting speculation that the U.S. might reject the One-China policy — thus the reason for speculation that the mainland’s warship seized the U.S. underwater drone in retaliation.
Just the facts, ma’am
The Chinese warship had been shadowing the USNS Bowditch in the South China Sea, snatching its Seaglider drone just before it was to be retrieved, according to the U.S. Navy ship, which had just retrieved a similar drone. The U.S. claims its fleet of Seagliders and other underwater drones (such as the the Deepglider which can descend to 3.7 miles whereas the Seaglider’s limit is .62 miles) was only tracking currents and salinity. The Chinese responded by saying it was a “hazard” to shipping lanes.
While the U.S. demanded its return, Trump tweeted that the U.S. should tell them to keep it, thus snubbing the communist mainland government again with indifference.
No one knows for sure why the Chinese seized the underwater drone, much less why they returned it. The U.S. Navy said they were closely studying the drone to see if the Chinese had tampered with it. The Chinese in turn warned that they might seize other drones in the South China Sea that are making military surveys. The U.S. has already determined that China’s off-shore artificial islands there have been militarized.