An undated U.S. Navy file photo of the USNS Bowditch.

An undated U.S. Navy file photo of the USNS Bowditch. (U.S. Navy)

China’s capture of a Navy underwater drone in front of the USNS Bowditch last week continued an emerging South China Sea tradition: a Chinese face-off with an unarmed U.S. vessel during a White House transition.

An order directed toward the Bowditch in 2001 by a Chinese frigate created a diplomatic and military stir, as did a gaggle of ships surrounding the USNS Impeccable in 2009.

However, Thursday’s incident carried a broader message, suggesting that China’s disputed claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea might be expanded even more.

China hasn’t denied the Pentagon’s assertion that a Dalang III-class salvage ship seized the oceanographic drone about 50 nautical miles from the Philippines.

The location puts it within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, in international waters. Yet China’s state-controlled media has labeled the drone’s position as within Chinese territory.

“Based on the available information, the [Chinese] ship discovered the ‘unknown device’ in Chinese jurisdictional waters,” according to a front-page editorial in the Monday overseas edition of the Communist Party newspaper The People’s Daily.

The wire service Xinhua also referred to the location as China’s waters in a story posted on China’s Defense Ministry home page.

Beijing signaled it might redefine its ambiguous South China Sea claim in a July position paper, when the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China’s “nine-dash line” maps circling most of the sea did not conform to international law.

China continues to rely on “historical discovery” to back its claim to hundreds of rocks, islands and shoals in the sea that are also claimed by several of its neighbors. Its claim of jurisdiction on the high seas clashes with the Navy’s oft-repeated mission statement to sail and fly wherever international law allows.

It’s also unlikely that the Chinese ship didn’t know what it was looking at when it seized the U.S. drone.

The drone is an unarmed, low-powered glider, which typically has clear U.S. markings. The Chinese have similar drones — they’re also the same yellow color.

There was some question when news broke Friday of the drone seizure as to whether the ship acted of its own initiative, said Euan Graham, director of international security for the Lowy Institute, an Australia-based think tank.

“I think we can put that one to bed now, because clearly, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry lined up behind this as a state action,” Graham said.

A Defense Ministry spokesman chastised the U.S. for dramatizing the seizure and demanded that the U.S. cease “close-in reconnaissance.”

The White House responded to the incident through State and Defense Department spokesmen, rather than through higher-profile senior officials.

The U.S. called for the return of the drone, known technically as an unmanned underwater vehicle. China has said it will do so, though no date has been announced.

The latest incident targeted a Military Sealift Command ship, which are mostly civilian-crewed, and differed from the 2001 Bowditch and 2009 Impeccable encounters in a key respect: It came before the new U.S. president took office.

Since 2009, the Chinese navy has developed closer relations with its U.S. counterparts. It agreed to a procedure for unplanned events that has removed some of the tension from “shadowing,” where Chinese ships closely follow U.S. vessels. China’s navy has also gained invitations to the U.S.-run, multinational Rim of the Pacific exercise.

Provoking the Obama administration as it leaves provides less time for a response that a new administration would have, Graham said.

Thus far, when China takes actions that the U.S. views as a violation of international law, it has avoided responding the same way, Graham said.

A Trump administration may take a different course. The president-elect has signaled he may be willing to link security disputes to economic concerns — though how that might play out remains unclear.

“Obama administration policy has been very carefully calibrated to play to the moral high ground, and it hasn’t worked,” Graham said. “Trump’s instinct will be far more freewheeling when it comes to this kind of asymmetric response.” Twitter:@eslavin_stripes

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