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China Seizes U.S. Underwater Drone

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Chinese military is now talking with its U.S. counterparts after a Chinese navy vessel seized a U.S. Navy drone in the South China Sea. The unmanned drone was conducting ocean research when it was taken. China's defense ministry said today that the U.S. was not helping by, quote, "hyping up the issue."

Now, this incident is the latest in an escalation of tensions in the region. It comes just after a U.S. think tank said that China had installed anti-aircraft systems and other weapons in a group of disputed islands in the South China Sea. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative issued that report, and its director, Greg Poling, joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

GREG POLING: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: We want to get to your report, but we have to ask about the seizure of this unmanned submersible, as they call it, first. Why did they want it? Why are they so keen to give it back now?

POLING: Well, they've given us absolutely no indication of why they would want it. The official explanation that came out from the minister of defense in Beijing this morning was that one of their lifeboats from a nearby ship happened to stumble on this thing and were concerned that it was a hazard to navigation, which is patently false. Their ship had been tailing the U.S. Navy ship Bowditch for some time and watched it deploy these drones and then watched it as the Bowditch prepared to bring them on board.

So this was clearly intentional. The big question remains, in my mind, whether or not this was even ordered from Beijing or if this was a captain or an individual commander who, you know, overstepped himself and now has put Beijing in the position having to come up with some rationale.

SIMON: Help us understand the larger picture. You have these islands that China essentially created on their own and now seems to be putting military equipment there.

POLING: That's right. So China has seven artificial islands out in the middle of the South China Sea, in the Spratly Islands, and three of them in particular are extremely large. China created over 3,000 acres of new land in just a couple of years. It's turned those three into fully functioning military bases for both navy and coast guard and now also for air assets.

And the most recent developments are very advanced, what are called point defense systems - anti-aircraft guns, anti-missile defenses - to make sure that these are functioning naval bases that can stand up in case of a conflict.

SIMON: Now, to point out the obvious, China has plenty of land on its own. What's so important to them about establishing those bases?

POLING: Well, you hear a lot of explanations about the amount of trade that goes through oil and gas fisheries in these waters, all of which are true to a degree. But when you really dig down to it, this is about nationalism. China has convinced itself that these are its waters, that it has some special historical, you know, almost Manifest Destiny to these, and it doesn't matter what international law says and it doesn't matter what the neighbors say. China's going to seize them one way or another.

SIMON: And this alarms other countries in the region who depend on shipping and fishing in those waters, doesn't it?

POLING: That's right. I mean, this is worrying for states like the United States or Japan or India, all of whom get very concerned because they're major users. I mean, this is arguably the busiest shipping route in the planet. But more immediately, it's a concern for the Southeast Asian countries - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei - who also have planes here and now basically have a Chinese almost mythological claim, what they call the nine-dash line, that bumps right up against the coastlines of these Southeast Asian states.

SIMON: The Trump administration takes office in a little over a month. What do they have to confront in that area of the world?

POLING: They have to accept that whether they like it or not, this is going to be an area of tension. We've seen nothing but escalating tensions, rising heat, for years here, and there's no indication that Beijing is going to pull back. We're going to see more and more frequent run-ins between Chinese forces and its neighbors and also probably between Chinese forces and U.S. Navy ships who use these waters.

As these big bases come on board, China's going to be able to patrol these waters 24/7 in a way they haven't during the Obama administration.

SIMON: And so the Trump administration has to be prepared to counter that or not, I guess.

POLING: They have to make up their mind whether or not this is a line in the sand that the U.S. has to draw. And if they choose not to, they're walking away from a lot more than the South China Sea. They're walking away from 75 years of the way international law works.

SIMON: Greg Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Thank you so much for being with us, Mr. Poling.

POLING: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.