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Pentagon: China to return seized drone as Trump reacts on Twitter

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The Chinese government will return a USA naval drone seized this week in the South China Sea, the Pentagon said Saturday, in a move that promises to defuse heightened maritime tensions between the two Pacific powers.

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, where it has constructed artificial reefs and built up its military presence - a trend that Trump has previously referenced on Twitter. The exact location was not clear, but Pentagon indications may put it near the China-controlled Spratly Islands. The president-elect told his 17.5 million Twitter followers: "China steals United States Navy research drone in worldwide waters - rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act".

According to the Pentagon, the drone was seized while collecting unclassified scientific data in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety, about 92 kilometers (57 miles) northwest of Subic Bay near the Philippines.

The US military says that through "direct engagement" with the Chinese, it's "secured an understanding" that China's navy will return an underwater glider seized in the South China Sea. The Bowditch made radio contact with the Chinese navy ship requesting the return of the vehicle, but the request was ignored, Cook said in a statement on Friday.

The Defense Ministry said a Chinese naval vessel discovered a piece of "unidentified equipment", and checked it to prevent any navigational safety issues before discovering it was a USA drone.

The United States says the drone was operating lawfully.

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Meanwhile, Mr Trump told the final rally of his post-election tour that U.S. first lady Michelle Obama "must have been talking about the past" when she said there was no sense of hope after his victory. He has threatened to declare China a currency manipulator and force changes in U.S. U.S. experts, however, said the drone might have been created to help follow China's submarine buildup, a critical part of the country's growing naval strength as it seeks unfettered control of the South China Sea and unimpeded access to the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The USNS Bowditch, which is an American Oceanographic survey ship, was getting ready to retrieve their drone when the Chinese capture occurred.

The U.S. has continued to conduct what it calls freedom-of-navigation exercises, deploying vessels through the sea to underscore the right to free passage in global waters.

Relations already were tense between the United States and China following Mr Trump's decision to talk by phone with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen on December 2. Trump's tweet Saturday evening may extend one of the most serious incidents between the American and the Chinese militaries in years. "Relevant parties from both sides have maintained smooth communication channels and believe this issue will be smoothly resolved", the paper said.

Before it was revealed that China would return the drone to the United States, Trump took to Twitter to call the drone seizure an "unprecedented act".

Cook earlier in the week said said China had "unlawfully seized" the drone, calling for its immediate return. However, he added that the chances of a confrontation had risen following Trump's recent comments, which were seen as testing China's bottom line on Taiwan and other sensitive issues.

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