China and the United States are finalizing details for the return, perhaps as early as Tuesday, of an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) picked up Dec. 15 by a Chinese naval ship in the South China Sea. The diplomatic conclusion to the incident may end the uproar it has caused but will do little to resolve the larger long-standing differences between Washington and Beijing.
According to the U.S. Defense Department, the USNS Bowditch was 50 nautical miles from Subic Bay, well within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, and was in the process of retrieving the UUV, a Slocum G2 Glider. Notably, the Bowditch was outside China's nine-dash line, an intentionally ambiguous mark on the map that has delineated China's maritime claims in the waters for more than half a century. The Bowditch was within 450 meters (500 yards) of the UUV when a boat dispatched by the Nanjiu 510, a People's Liberation Army Navy submarine rescue and salvage ship that had been shadowing the Bowditch, took possession of the glider. The Bowditch radioed the Nanjiu, which acknowledged transmission but ignored the message.
The Bowditch, a non-commissioned ship owned by the U.S. Navy, is operated by its Military Sealift Command as a hybrid military and civilian vessel. It is crewed primarily by civilian contractors and conducts maritime surveys that provide data valuable for both civilian research and military applications. The glider it was retrieving is a model commercially available from Teledyne Systems that was programmed and operated via satellite by the Naval Oceanographic Office in Mississippi. The gliders are given a preprogrammed set of instructions and conduct their missions by using dead reckoning underwater, with course adjustments made by periodically surfacing to check GPS coordinates.