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The Pentagon is demanding that China return an "unlawfully seized" underwater drone after a Chinese warship took the device from waters near a United States oceanographic vessel.

The crew had retrieved one drone when a Chinese ship that was shadowing the Bowditch swept in and seized the second, which was about 500 yards away, according to the officials. He said this may be the first time in recent history that China has taken a usa naval vessel.

"The UUV was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea", one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The report comes as new satellite photos emerge indicating that China has begun placing specialized anti-aircraft weaponry on the artificial islands it has illegally build in the South China Sea.

The U.S. and the Philippines, a former U.S. colony, have been closely tied for decades; the two countries are treaty allies.

"It's not unusual for Chinese ships to be following American vessels under the assumption they are spying. The radio contact was acknowledged by the PRC Navy ship, but the request was ignored", he said.

The underwater probe was taken around 50 nautical miles (90 kilometers) northwest off Subic Bay in the Philippines on Thursday afternoon in a non-violent incident, Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said.

It coincided with sabre-rattling from Chinese state media and some in its military establishment after U.S. President-elect Donald Trump cast doubt on whether Washington would stick to its almost four-decades-old policy of recognizing that Taiwan is part of "one China".

The Chinese Embassy said it had no immediate comment.

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Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the seizure "a remarkably brazen violation of global law".

Davis said the USNS Bowditch, which is not a combat ship, was stopped in global waters Thursday afternoon when the Chinese ship approached.

United States oceanographic research vessels are often followed in the water under the assumption they are spying. "I'm more inclined to see it as a deliberate act and as a signal", Glaser said.

The incident is the latest in an increasingly tense relationship between China and the U.S.

U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Maybus cited a "growing China" as one of the reasons that the Navy needed to expand its fleet to 355 ships, including 12 carriers, 104 large surface combatants, 38 amphibious ships and 66 submarines.