A Chinese Navy ship stole an American underwater research drone in a South China Sea area contested by the Chinese and the Philippines, two U.S. defense officials told Fox News Friday morning.
The incident occurred around noon Thursday local time approximately 40 miles west of the Philippines and about 150 miles from Scarborough Shoal. For days, the Chinese ship had been shadowing the American ship USNS Bowditch, which deployed the drone, a Slocum Glider.
“This is an act of war against the United States,” Gordon Chang, analyst and author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” told Fox News’ “Happening Now.” He said the move was an act of war because U.S. military property was stolen.
The research ship is owned by the U.S. Navy but operated by Military Sealift Command, with a crew of contracted civilian mariners and scientists.
The Chinese have been regularly shadowing U.S. Navy vessels in the South China Sea for months, Fox News was told. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, reported Wednesday that China apparently set up anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems designed to guard against missile attacks on all seven of its man-made islands in the strategically vital area.
We call upon China to return our [unmanned underwater vehicle] immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook responded.
Fox News was told the underwater drone was used to map the sea floor and gather other oceanographic data, and contained no classified material.
According to the USNS Bowditch’s website, the ship is used to “support worldwide oceanography programs, including performing acoustical, biological, physical and geophysical surveys.”
The drone was worth roughly $150,000.
After the Chinese vessel plucked the drone out of the water, the American research ship’s crew tried to call the Chinese ship over bridge-to-bridge radio, but to no avail.
The State Department lodged a formal protest known as a demarche, which the U.S. ambassador in Beijing delivered to the Chinese government Friday, Fox News was told.
The department did not immediately respond when Fox News reached out for comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Lucas Tomlinson is the Pentagon and State Department producer for Fox News Channel. You can follow him on Twitter: @LucasFoxNews