The American oceanographic survey ship which controls the underwater drone seized by China had been spying against the Communist nation posing a threat to Chinese naval ships in the South China Sea, a state-run daily has said while claiming that such activities by the US Navy were "very rampant" in the strategic region.
"We welcome that the Chinese navy is conducting regular 'verification and examination' of devices dispatched by the US to collect intelligence in China's surrounding waters in future. This should go along with US sabotage activities in China's periphery," an editorial posted on the web edition of the state-run Global Times daily said on Sunday.
"The US claimed that the glider was collecting unclassified data such as salinity and water temperature, which are routine operations in accordance with international
law. However, this argument is absurd," the daily said.
The Chinese military said on Saturday night that the drone seized by its naval boat would be returned "in an appropriate manner" after the US took up the issue with China, but did not give any time line.
"The USNS Bowditch (which controlled the drone) has appeared in the waters around China now and then. It caused a dispute between China and the US in the Yellow Sea in 2002. The surveillance ship has been engaged in maritime intelligence gathering, posing a long-term threat to the safety of Chinese navy vessels, especially submarines," the editorial said.
Reports said a Chinese naval boat seized the drone before the Bowditch could retrieve it from the water.
Defending the seizure of the drone Chinese defence ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun yesterday dismissed the US allegations, insisting China had been "professional and responsible" to take the drone.
"We had to examine and verify the device in a bid to avoid any harm it might cause to the safety of navigation and personnel," he said.
US president-elect Donald Trump has accused China of stealing the drone.
In its editorial, Global Times said "it's well-known that the South China Sea is an important area where Chinese strategic submarines conduct activities. Intelligence gathering activities by the US Navy in the region are very rampant," it said.
China and the US have confronted each other over US intelligence gathering in China's periphery for a long time.
In 2001, a US Navy intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese jet while in 2009, several Chinese fishing vessels besieged US surveillance ship USNS Impeccable, it said.
"Many people worry that the US Navy has collected too much information about China's naval base in Hainan Island, and it may even have deployed underwater devices that can continuously send signals," it said.
The US has always claimed its practices are consistent with international law and regards maritime reconnaissance operations targeting China as a key aspect of "freedom of navigation in the South China Sea".
"This is a typical hegemonic approach. It's common sense that freedom of navigation should not harm China's national security. With the increase in China's defensive capabilities, we believe such a common-sense approach will win more respect," the editorial said.
"If one day Chinese navy ships conduct intelligence gathering around US coastlines and its surrounding waters, what will the US think? It's worth noting that it won't take a long time for the Chinese ships to develop such capabilities," it said.
"Does the US want the two countries to engage in offshore intelligence gathering oneupmanship? China knows the strength of the US Navy. But no matter how powerful the US Navy is, it cannot act on the bottom line of China's security. Otherwise, misunderstandings and frictions are bound to occur," it said.
The Global Times also quoted Chinese military analysts as saying the US should put a halt to its spying activities in the South China Sea.
"This is not the first time that we seized a US underwater drone in the South China Sea, but the one we seized on Thursday is new and more advanced than before and might carry valuable information just gathered in the South China Sea," Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert told the daily.
This is why the US was so nervous and tried to use the media to hype it up this time while it had remained silent before, Li said.
A Chinese military source confirmed with the Global Times that on Saturday they received a "claim request" from the US for the underwater drone.
Song Zhongping, a military commentator at Phoenix TV, told the Global Times that in the military field, the drone, or UUV (unmanned underwater vehicle), can gather hydrological intelligence about salinity, temperature and ocean currents.
"More importantly, it can also gather military intelligence like the movements of submarines," Song said, adding that the South China Sea is a significant area for Chinese navy and nuclear submarines.