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Drone Catch and Release Heightens China Tensions

Fang Fenghui, chief of the Chinese army's general staff, is welcomed on board the USS Coronado in San Diego on May 13, 2014. (US Navy photo via Getty Images)
Fang Fenghui, chief of the Chinese army's general staff, is welcomed on board the USS Coronado in San Diego on May 13, 2014. (US Navy photo via Getty Images)

Hours after President-elect Donald Trump slammed the "unprecedented" seizure of a U.S. Navy unmanned underwater glider in the South China Sea, the Chinese government said it would give back the drone -- bringing a peaceful end to what local experts are calling another clear sign of escalating tensions between the two countries.

"China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters -- rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act," Trump tweeted yesterday morning, hours after a Pentagon official confirmed a Chinese warship seized the 10-foot-long and 2-foot-wide device on Thursday as it was conducting oceanic research.

Trump addressed the controversy again on Twitter last night, writing: "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!"

After asserting its military only seized the ocean glider drone -- which cost about $150,000 -- to ensure the "safe navigation of passing ships," the Chinese government said it would return the drone after determining it was indeed an American device. The U.S. later confirmed it had "secured an understanding" for the return of the device, which was seized off the Philippine coast.

Although the U.S. said China's "unlawful seizure" occurred in international waters, China responded by accusing the U.S. of sending ships "in China's presence" to conduct "military surveying" and saying it is "resolutely opposed to this and requests the U.S. stop such activities."

The incident could be the first time in recent history that China has taken a U.S. naval vessel, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday.

Northeastern University political science professor Max Abrahms said the incident is a reminder that while much of the focus since Trump's win has been on his relationship with Russia, Americans should be concerned about rapidly deteriorating relations with China.

"I'm less concerned about Trump's coddling of Russia than I am about Trump isolating China and escalating tensions with that country," Abrahms said. "This could be a very long four years if the U.S. and China continue to go down this road."

Boston College political science professor Robert Ross said the incident highlights a growing concern over how the Trump administration will approach relations with China -- particularly when it comes to its ongoing military buildup in the South China Sea.

"If this was a decision made at the senior level, a decision was made to send a signal to the U.S. that would reflect concerns about the American Navy and what it has been doing in the region," Ross said. "It might signal to the Trump administration that tolerance for any changes in American policy toward China is limited."

Herald wire services contributed to this report.

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(c)2016 the Boston Herald

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