WASHINGTON The United States expects China to soon return an underwater U.S. drone after a Chinese naval vessel seized it last week, with one U.S. official telling Reuters the exchange could happen as early as Tuesday at an agreed spot in the South China Sea.
China's seizure of the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) triggered a diplomatic protest and speculation about whether U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will point to the incident as proof of the need to take a tougher line with Beijing.
A Chinese warship took the drone, which the Pentagon says uses unclassified, commercially available technology to collect oceanographic data, on Thursday about 50 nautical miles ]northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines.
The officials said talks with Beijing on the timing of the exchange were advancing, with two saying they expected the incident to be satisfactorily resolved "relatively soon."
One of the officials added the exchange could take place in the vicinity of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
Both China and United States said over the weekend China will return the drone but did not clarify how or when.
Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, waded into the dispute on Twitter early on Saturday from his seaside resort club Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, where he plans to spend the holidays.
"China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters - rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act," he said.
After China said it would return the drone, Jason Miller, a spokesman for Trump, tweeted a link to a news story, saying: "@realdonaldtrump gets it done."
There was, however, no evidence that Trump had played any role. U.S. officials said the negotiations took place in Beijing during the overnight hours in the United States.
Hours later, while riding in a motorcade back to his resort, Trump tweeted his second jab. "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back - let them keep it!" he said.
Trump has previously threatened to declare China a currency manipulator and force changes in U.S.-Chinese trade policy, which he says has led to the greatest theft of American jobs in history.
Trump has also raised questions about the most sensitive part of the U.S.-China relationship: whether Washington would stick to its nearly four-decades-old policy of recognizing that Taiwan is part of "one China."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish)