In December 2016, the USNS Bowditch (T-AGS-62) deployed an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) to conduct hydrographic surveys off the coast of the Philippines. As it began recovery operations, a nearby Chinese warship dispatched a small boat and took possession of the device in view of the U.S. crew. When the Bowditch contacted the Chinese vessel seeking the UUV’s immediate return, they were informed that the warship was departing the area to resume its patrol.1
While the event occurred at what could be considered the “tactical level,” its second- and third-order effects permeated operational and strategic levels, with then-President-elect Donald Trump issuing a condemnation on Twitter. Many believe China violated the sovereign immunity of a noncommercial U.S. vessel operating in international waters and potentially could have provoked a strong response.2 The situation was resolved peacefully when China returned the UUV after the United States protested diplomatically, but the incident increased tensions between the two nations.
1. H. M. Przybyla and J. Michaels, “China Agrees to Return U.S. Drone Seized in South China Sea, Pentagon Says,” USA Today, 17 December 2016.
2. John Burgess, Lucia Foulkes, Philip Jones, Matt Merighi, Stephen Murray, and Jack Whitacre, eds., Law of the Sea: A Policy Primer (Medford, MA: Tufts University Fletcher School of Law, 2018), 36–39.
3. N. Tarnopolsky and N. Bulos, “Iranian Drone Penetrates Israeli Airspace; Israel Responds with Attacks in Syria,” MSN via the Los Angeles Times, 10 February 2018,.
4. T. Vanden Brook and B. Jansen, “Trump Says He Abruptly Canceled Retaliatory Strike on Iran after Drone Attack,” USA Today, 21 June 2019.
5. U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 10 December 1982. Although the United States has not ratified the UNCLOS treaty, it does recognize it as customary international law.
6. Sam LaGrone, “Iran Seizes Two U.S. Navy Riverine Patrol Boats, Tehran Pledges to Release Crews,” USNI News, 16 January 2016. Ethel Rosenthal with David Sanger, “U.S. Plane in China after It Collides with Chinese Jet,” New York Times, 2 April 2001.
7. Brian Everstine, “Air Force: Lost Predator Was Shot Down in Syria,” Air Force Times, 29 June 2015.
8. CNA report, “Impact of Unmanned Systems to Escalation Dynamics (Summary)” (Arlington, VA: 2017).