While the unprecedented seizure of a US underwater drone by the Chinese navy has escalated Sino-US tensions in the South China Sea, it is not the first high-profile military incident in the region.
On April 1, 2001, a US Navy EP-3E Aries II signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided 110km off the coast of Hainan.The US plane issued a Mayday distress call before making an emergency landing on the island, leading to the seizure of its 24 crew members along with its intelligence equipment. The Chinese jet, one of two that intercepted the US plane, crashed into the sea, killing the pilot.
The Pentagon accused the Chinese of aggressively tailing its aircraft while the Chinese protested that the American plane veered in an unusual fashion, causing the collision. The incident triggered a huge outpouring of anti-American sentiment in China. The missing pilot Wang Wei was given a funeral with full military honours.
The incident sparked a major diplomatic upset, even before both country’s presidents, Jiang Zemin and George W. Bush, met for the first time. The US crew were released on April 11.
In 2009, the USNS Impeccable, an oceanographic surveillance ship contracted to the US Navy, was involved in a string of confrontations with Chinese vessels in the South China Sea. The US complained about harassment by Chinese vessels, which it believed was largely due to its potential intelligence gathering of submarine movements around China’s large submarine base on the island.
US President Barack Obama ordered the guided missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon to join the Impeccable on patrol in the South China Sea.
While both sides try to avoid direct clashes by restraining their conduct at sea through miliary dialogue, the US has made no secret of its increased deployment of underwater drones to the South China Sea. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said in April that the US would spent more than US$8 billion in 2017 on the development of the unmanned underwater surveillance vessels.
Although the US has said the device was only collecting oceanographic data, Anthony Wong Dong, a Macau based military observer, agreed that the highly advanced technology of collecting oceanographic data was essentially to serve nuclear submarines.
“China’s mastery of this kind of technology still lags behind the US. However, China has largely closed the gap, hence the current incident.”
Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior colonel at China’s Academy of Military Science, said it was not the first time that the US deployed an underwater drone in the South China Sea, but it’s the first time the Chinese military had seized one, and there must be a reason for that. The Chinese must have felt that it threatened China’s national security and damaged its interests.”
“We don’t need to seize it to know what it does,” Zhao said. “The data (collected by the drone) could be useful and suggests that the US may consider the area is potentially strategically important in the future.”
Wang Yiwei, an international relations professor at Renmin University, said China wanted to send the message that it was capable of fending off US activities in the South China Sea.
The seizure of this drone showed the power of the Chinese military. It is also a signal that we are capable of stopping US military intervention.