On Tuesday, China demonstrated its goodwill in the face of U.S. hostility by returning the underwater drone that was located in the South China Sea. In a recent People’s Daily commentary, the USNS Bowditch was accused of keeping watch over China. The news has been largely one-sided, with Western media frequently replacing “discovery of unknown device” with “seizure of U.S. underwater drone.” But given China’s past experience with the Bowditch, the role of oceanographic data in warfare operations, and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s aggressive actions and comments, China has every reason to be deeply suspicious of U.S. naval surveillance in the South China Sea.
The Bowditch has long been associated with spying operations against China. A recent article on the China Military website called the ship a threat to China’s national security. According to a 2011 Congressional Research Service reported on the subject of China’s military and security developments, the Bowditch has been involved in at least two major incidents.
In March 2001, the U.S. accused a Chinese frigate of carrying out “aggressive and provocative actions” against the Bowditch within China’s exclusive economic zone. In September 2002, a similar event unfolded a second time. Given China’s past experience with the Bowditch, it is normal for China to be suspicious of its activities in waters facing China.
Oceanographic data is useful for scientific research, but this data can also be used to support submarine and undersea warfare operations in areas of tactical importance, such as the South China Sea. In addition, the Bowditch is not the first noncombat “research” ship to sail the waters of Northeast Asia. The USS Pueblo, a “research” ship captured by North Korea during Cold War, was used to intercept communications from North Korea. There is no way for China to be absolutely certain that the Bowditch is not engaged in hostile spying operations against China or that data being collected is not for the purpose of warfare operations against China.
Then there is the wildcard that is currently upsetting China-U.S. relations. Shortly after the Chinese navy collected the underwater device to make sure that it did not pose a security risk, Trump lashed out at China for “stealing” the underwater drone in an “unpresidented (unprecedented) act.” However, the situation was being handled military-to-military in a professional manner, and his comments only added fuel to the fire. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Monday called Trump’s word choice “totally inaccurate.”
China has long opposed U.S. close-in reconnaissance operations in the South China Sea. Despite the spiral of tensions, China demonstrated its goodwill and returned the underwater drone “after friendly negotiation.” China should be given credit for handling the situation in a professional and peaceful manner.