After days of negotiations, China has agreed to return an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) to the US, three days after it was captured in the South China Sea off the northwest coast of the Philippines. On December 15, a Chinese warship seized, what a Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman described as “unidentified equipment,” in international waters. Once it was under their control, it was verified as a UUV, which was deployed by a US military research vessel in order to conduct an oceanographic survey of the surrounding area. While China has argued it acted to “prevent this device from posing a danger to the safe navigation of passing ships,” the US has maintained throughout the ordeal that the use of the UUV was in full compliance with international law and they used commercially available technology. This resulted in the US making a formal diplomatic complaint to China, in what is being viewed as one of the most substantial military incidents between the two superpowers in decades. The incident comes in the context of rising tensions between the two nations over the last couple of weeks, which started with US President-Elect Donald Trump’s decision to field a call from Tsai Ing-Wen, the President of Taiwan. This could represent a change in current US policy, which regards Taiwan as a part of China. This caused China to launch a diplomatic protest of their own and it is feared that the increasingly hostile relations will only worsen under President Trump’s administration.
The actions taken by China are representative of a greater policy shift towards military assertiveness in the South China Sea as the state looks to establish control over the strategically important area and its vast energy resources. This has been proven further after the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative last week announced new satellite imagery that showed newly installed weapons systems, likely to be anti-aircraft technology, built on all seven Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea. Any shift towards military intimidation or the threat of conflict should be condemned as it could in no way foster a peaceful resolution to the problem at hand. While the Permanent Court of Arbitration represents one opportunity for such resolution, it ruled in July 2016 that China did not have a legitimate claim to the Scarborough Shoal and Spratlys Islands in the South China Sea. However, after the ruling went against them, China called the decision “ill-founded” and stated that the decision was not legally binding. This highlights the need for more effective international organizations and institutions in order to facilitate the international disagreement that is sure to occur as the strategic value of the South China Sea grows.
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