BEIJING: China said Tuesday it has returned a seized underwater probe to the US Navy in the South China Sea, after Beijing’s seizure of the craft sparked a dispute between the two powers.
The handover of the small vehicle to the US went “completed smoothly” after “friendly consultations” between both sides, China’s defence ministry said in a short statement on its website.
China seized the probe around 50 nautical miles (90 kilometres) northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines last week, in an incident which heightened already tense relations between the world’s two largest economies.
Pentagon officials had previously said that it would be handed over to the crew of a US warship in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal.
Last week, Pentagon officials said the Chinese had “unlawfully” grabbed the marine probe, which they described as a craft that gathers unclassified data that can be used to help submarines navigate and determine sonar ranges in murky waters.
China said it had been snatched since it might pose a safety hazard to other vessels. It also said it “strongly opposed” US reconnaissance activities and had asked Washington to stop.
US President-elect Donald Trump also waded into the row. On Sunday, after Beijing and Washington announced the drone would be returned, Trump tweeted: “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back. – let them keep it!”
China’s foreign ministry on Monday rejected Trump’s accusations Beijing had stolen the craft as “not accurate”.