Last Updated Dec 19, 2016 7:38 AM EST
China is preparing to return a U.S. underwater drone it seized last week. The drone was taken 50 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines on Thursday. The U.S. publicly demanded it back, but China blamed the U.S. for dramatizing the event.
President-elect Donald Trump summarized the incident Saturday, tweeting: “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters - rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act.”
After both the U.S. and China agreed the drone would be returned, Mr. Trump’s comments breathed new life into an incident that both militaries seem eager to put behind them, reports CBS News correspondent Adriana Diaz.
Chinese state media delivered a statement from its military this weekend that was laced with annoyance. It said China would return the drone because it posed no safety threat, but added that the U.S. has unilaterally and inappropriately hyped the issue.
Hours later, Mr. Trump, while in Alabama for his victory tour Saturday, launched two tweets at China. The most recent said: “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”
China didn’t appreciate the comment.
“We don’t like the word steal. That’s totally inaccurate,” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “The Chinese navy found the device and examined it in a professional manner … It’s as if you saw something on the street and someone asked you for it, you’d have to examine if it really belongs to them.”
An editorial in the state-run tabloid, The Global Times, went further, issuing a threat. It said if Mr. Trump “treats China after assuming office in the same way as in his tweets, China will not exercise restraint.”
The drone at the center of this diplomatic posturing was conducting underwater research.
The U.S. military says the one seized by China Thursday was collecting information on water temperature and sound speed, though its data can also be used to hunt for Chinese submarines.
The incident played out at the center of one of the most sensitive issues between the U.S. and China: the South China Sea. Six countries claim parts of the sea, but China declares nearly all of it is theirs. Recent satellite images also show China installing weapons on artificial islands it built there to defend its claim.
Further complicating the matter is that the drone appeared to be seized outside of China’s self-proclaimed jurisdiction. A U.S. defense official says the drone will be returned in a boat-to-boat transfer. The timing is still unclear but we’re told the hand off may be delayed by weather.