A similar unmanned underwater vehicle is shown in 2015.

A similar unmanned underwater vehicle is shown in 2015. Navy file photo

China Returned the U.S. Underwater Drone it Seized in the South China Sea

The handover was "smoothly" completed at midday, Beijing said.

Days after taking an American unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) in the contested waters of the South China Sea, China finally returned the drone to the US, according to officials from the two sides.

The Chinese navy returned the drone to the US near the location where it had been “unlawfully seized” on Dec. 15, in international waters around 50 nautical miles (90 kilometers) from the Philippines, the Pentagon said in a statement today (Dec. 20). The handover was “smoothly” completed at midday of Dec. 20, according to China’s defense ministry (link in Chinese).

“This incident was inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea… The U.S. will continue to investigate the events surrounding this incident and address any additional findings with the Chinese,” said Pentagon spokesperson Peter Cook in the statement.

The Pentagon said earlier that the UUV was being operated lawfully by civilian contractors to conduct oceanic research, while the Chinese side claimed that it seized the drone to ensure the “safe navigation of passing ships.”

Last week, US president-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter to accuse China of “stealing” the drone, and said he doesn’t care if Beijing keeps the drone. Chinese military experts suggested that Beijing should keep the data collected by the drone, as it may be carrying “valuable information.”