The US underwater research drone that was seized by China last week, is "the tip of the iceberg" of US military strategy, Chinese state media has alleged in an editorial on Monday, 19 December. The commentary has also alleged that the USNS Bowditch, which was operating the drone, has had a history of spying in Chinese waters.

The Pentagon, which confirmed on Saturday (17 December) that China has agreed to return the drone to the US, had claimed that the "unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV)" was operating in the South China Sea lawfully, collecting data about the salinity, temperature and clarity of the water about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, off the Philippines.

However, the article in the ruling Communist Party-run People's Daily alleged the seized vessel was involved in spying incidents in 2001 and 2002, and called it a "serial offender". It was operating in the Yellow Sea and was shadowed by Chinese navy ships and the vessel has also operated in the sensitive Taiwan Straits in the past, the editorial added.

"The downplaying of the actions of the drone cannot cover up the real intentions in the background.

"This drone which floated to the surface in the South China Sea is the tip of the iceberg of US military strategy, including toward China," the article noted about the latest incident, Reuters reported.

A similar article in another Chinese publication quoted Chinese military analysts as saying that the US must stop its alleged spying activities and also stop making what they called civilian excuses to camouflage these acts.

Song Zhongping, a military commentator at Phoenix TV, told the Global Times on Sunday (18 December) that the UUV can gather hydrological intelligence about salinity, temperature and ocean currents, but it is also capable of gathering military intelligence like the movements of submarines. Song noted that the South China Sea is a significant area for Chinese navy submarines and nuclear submarines.

USNS Bowditch
Chinese state media called the USNS Bowditch (in picture), the US underwater research drone seized by China last week, a serial offender in spying activities - File photo US Navy

"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 [15 December] 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 paper.

"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. The US was aware that such spying activity is inappropriate," Li added.

Taking a dig at US President-elect Donald Trump for his outburst over the issue, in which he said China can keep the vessel they "stole" from the US, Li said: "Trump, who said 'China steals' their UUV, should notice that they are the thieves who are engaged in spying around our front door."

Li said although the Chinese defence ministry has said they would return the drone to the US, the ministry spokesman might have meant that the information the drone had gathered in the South China Sea will not be handed back to the US, "whether the US is happy or not".

Li said the US has to explain why its navy is found always conducting such "inappropriate and dangerous" activities around China.