An American underwater drone was captured by a Chinese warship in international waters in the South China Sea on Thursday, an anonymous defense official reported to USA Today. A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed the report Friday.
The drone does not have any military capabilities and is used to gather unclassified information such as water temperature and salinity levels. It belongs to the U.S. Navy but was launched from an oceanographic ship crewed by civilians. When the incident occurred Thursday, the drone was about to be recovered by the American oceanographic ship; instead, a Chinese Dalang III class warship approached within 500 yards of the U.S. boat and launched a smaller vessel that retrieved the drone from the water and brought it back to the Chinese warship.
The Chinese warship then left the scene, although the U.S. oceanographic ship radioed to demand the drone back. The Chinese reportedly acknowledged they had gotten the message from the Americans but did not reply to it.
China has asserted ownership and influence over the South China Sea, although the U.S. and other nations have insisted the waters are international. The U.S. government has issued a diplomatic protest over the stolen drone and demanded it be returned.