US Department of Defense(WASHINGTON) — Amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea, the Pentagon announced Monday evening that China had returned the U.S. Navy underwater research drone that was seized in the area last week.
The drone was completing a preprogrammed military oceanographic survey route when it was seized by a Chinese ship last Thursday. On Monday, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said the drone was “absolutely operating inside international waters and it was absolutely performing necessary scientific research, certainly within the bounds of international law.”
Kirby also said the seizure of the drone was “not doing anything to de-escalate tensions” between China and the U.S.
The South China Sea has become a focal point for China, the U.S. and other countries in the region.
Here’s what you need to know:
What’s Going On in the South China Sea?
In recent years, China has been building ports, runways and radar facilities on several manmade islands in the South China Sea.
The latest satellite images of the islands, released in a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last week, show China now appears to have installed large antiaircraft guns and weapons systems there as well.
The seven new islands were constructed by dredging sand onto reefs, an effort by China to boost its claim to all of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan all claim to occupy portions of the island chain.
China’s development in the region is seen as threatening to other nations that occupy territory in that chain of islands to the east of Vietnam and west of the Philippines and Malaysia. This area of the ocean is valuable because it contains fisheries and possible oil and gas reserves.
China had previously committed to not militarizing the controversial manmade islands, but the latest satellite images appear to show evidence to the contrary, according to the CSIS report, raising concerns that China is developing military outposts in the event of conflict.
The Chinese government maintains that the islands are for maritime safety and mainly civilian purposes.
Why Does This Matter to the U.S.?
The U.S. sees China’s acts as raising tensions in the region and threatening U.S. allies, but senior officials have also said that the U.S. is not taking sides in the territorial disputes between China and other countries in the region.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has repeatedly said that the U.S. does not want to see any country with a claim to the islands militarize the region and that the U.S. will continue to ensure its right of passage through international waters and airspace.
“We will fly, we will sail, we will operate everywhere international law permits in the South China Sea,” Carter has said, which is why the U.S. Navy has conducted “freedom of navigation” patrols that sail within the 12-nautical mile territorial limits of some of the disputed islands.
Additionally, an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes through the region each year.
Carter visited a U.S. aircraft carrier in the South China Sea in April in the midst of a trip to India, the Philippines and the Middle East.
— U.S. Dept of Defense (@DeptofDefense) April 15, 2016
At the time, China had recently announced that one of its top military officers had toured the islands in the South China Sea. China said the official was overseeing construction on the islands, including in the Spratly region.
How Have Other Countries in the Area Reacted to China’s Construction?
In attempt to counter Chinese developments on their islands, Vietnam reportedly moved mobile rocket launchers to several of its islands in August, according to Reuters. (However, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry called the report “inaccurate.”)
But the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who is trying to mend his country’s relationship with China, has taken a different approach, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric on an issue that once divided the two nations: China’s taking of the disputed South China Sea’s Scarborough shoal in 2012.
The dispute caused the previous administration to initiate court proceedings, backed by the U.S., against China before an international arbitration tribunal.
On Saturday, Duterte said he would “set aside” the July decision by the tribunal that ruled China could not legally claim most of the South China Sea. The decision also rebuked China’s construction of the artificial islands.
“I will not impose anything on China,” Duterte said.
The Philippines’ secretary of foreign affairs, Perfecto Yasay Jr., said the Philippines would also not take action against China in response to the new satellite images, not wanting to heighten tensions between the two countries.
“There is nothing that we can do about that now, whether or not it is being done for purposes of further militarizing these facilities that they have put up,” Yasay Jr. said Friday of the images.
But the Philippines’ national defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, was more concerned.
“If true, it is a big concern for us and the international community who uses the South China Sea lanes for trade,” Lorenza said Thursday. “It would mean that the Chinese are militarizing the area, which is not good.”
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