China and US discuss return of captured American drone

State newspaper editorial in Beijing accuses US of being serial spying offender

China and the US have held talks about returning an American underwater drone taken by a Chinese naval vessel last week, but the incident has highlighted potential difficulties ahead between Washington and Beijing when Donald Trump becomes president.

The unmanned underwater vehicle was picked up last week in waters off Subic Bay in the Philippines. Although the incident took place in international waters, China considers most of the resource-rich South China Sea to be its territory, and sees any US activity there as a threat.

China accused Washington of hyping up the incident and has also reacted angrily to Mr Trump’s controversial Twitter comments about it, in which he initially accused China of stealing the drone and then said that China could “keep it”.

The People's Daily, the official organ of China's ruling Communist Party, said in an editorial that Washington was a "serial offender" when it came to spying on China.


“The unmanned drone was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to US military actions against China,” the editorial said. “The US military routinely sends ships to Chinese waters to conduct close-in reconnaissance and military surveys. This demonstrates the country’s doubt toward and even hostility against China. So-called free navigation would not only increase the risk of accidents, it would also create obstacles for strategic mutual trust between China and the US.”

‘Unimpeded military channels’

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the Chinese and US military were using "unimpeded military channels" to handle the issue. She described Mr Trump's remarks as "completely incorrect".

“The key is that China’s navy had a responsible and professional attitude to identify and ascertain this object,” she said. “If you discover or pick something up from the street, you have to examine it, and if somebody asks you for it you have to work out if it’s theirs before you can give it back.”

Mr Trump has already angered China with remarks about its currency and how the US should deal with self-ruled Taiwan. He has said that he does not necessarily have to hold to the "one China" policy.

Some of the more hawkish commentators say that China took the drone as a warning to Mr Trump that it would not easily forgive his Taiwan phone call.

Another editorial, in the Global Times, which is part of the same stable as the People's Daily, said Mr Trump was not behaving like a president-in-waiting.

"Trump is not behaving as a president who will become master of the White House in a month. He bears no sense of how to lead a superpower," the Global Times said. "Even the US military did not use the term 'steal' to describe the move by the Chinese navy. Trump's second tweet makes people worry that he will treat China-US relations as child's play."

Separately, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong reported that China was holding its "first-ever" underwater drone symposium, just two days after it seized the US device, with 100 top experts attending.

The event was organised by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Automation, and the institute said it was unconnected to the recent developments.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing