China says don't read too much into U.S. drone case

FILE PHOTO - The oceanographic survey ship USNS Bowditch, shown here on September 20, 2002, which deployed an underwater drone seized by a Chinese Navy warship in international waters in the South China Sea on December 15, 2016. Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout/File photo via REUTERS

BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Thursday people should not read too much into last week’s incident when a Chinese naval vessel picked up a U.S. underwater drone in the disputed South China Sea.

The taking of the unmanned underwater vehicle in international waters near the Philippines triggered a U.S. diplomatic protest and speculation about whether it would strengthen U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s hand as he seeks a tougher line with China or whether China was testing him.

The Chinese navy returned the drone on Tuesday after what it said were friendly talks with the United States.

Asked whether China dismantled the drone to inspect it, or whether the navy deliberately targeted the drone or if it was picked up by mistake, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had no details about the incident other than those provided by the defense ministry.

“There is a bit of over-reading, or a bit thinking about it too much: ‘was it a misjudgment or orders from higher up’?” Hua told a daily news briefing, referring to a reporter’s question.

“But if you read the answer from the defense ministry spokesman, the facts are really simple and clear,” she said, repeating the defense ministry’s line that they had discovered an unidentified object and out of safety concerns took in it for verification.

The seizure has added to U.S. concern about China’s growing military presence and aggressive posture in the disputed South China Sea, including its militarization of maritime outposts.

China is deeply suspicious of any U.S. military activity in the resource-rich South China Sea, with state media and experts saying the use of the drone was likely part of U.S. surveillance efforts in the disputed waterway.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel