China has agreed to return the US underwater drone seized by its naval vessel in the South China Sea on Thursday, amicably settling a provocative issue that further marred US-China relations.
The decision was announced on Saturday after talks in Beijing between officials of the two countries, even as Beijing complained that Washington has been "hyping up" the incident.
US President-elect Donald Trump, a known China-baiter, has accused Beijing of stealing US property and at one stage even said the US should let China keep the stolen property.
The incident occurred on 15 December, in the Subic Bay, about 100 miles from a nearby port.
The drone was used by USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic vessel operating in the region, for collecting data in international waters in the South China Sea.
A Chinese naval ship seized the underwater drone, an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), off the Philippines coast in the international waters. An agitated Pentagon sought immediate return of the underwater craft (See: China grabs US underwater drone, Pentagon demands its 'Immediate' release). "Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV to the United States," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement on Saturday.
The USNS Bowditch (T-AGS 62) is owned by the US Navy but operated by Military Sealift Command around the world to gather military oceanographic data such as salinity, water temperature, and sound speed.
''The ship ''supports worldwide oceanography programs, including performing acoustical, biological, physical and geophysical surveys,'' according to the website.
The Chinese naval vessel allegedly shadowed Bowditch and used a smaller craft to retrieve the drone.
The US Department of State lodged a formal protest Friday and officially demanded the return of the drone, a Slocum Glider worth $150,000.
The incident comes amid assertive Chinese actions in the South China Sea, including installation of weapon systems in the disputed islands.
The drone, which the Pentagon said was operating lawfully, was collecting data about the salinity, temperature and clarity of the water about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, off the Philippines.
"China decided to return it to the US side in an appropriate manner, and China and the US have all along been in communication about it," the ministry said on its website.
"During this process, the US side's unilateral and open hyping up is inappropriate, and is not beneficial to the smooth resolution of this issue. We express regret at this," it added.