China has returned the underwater drone that it seized in the South China Sea last week, according to U.S. and Chinese officials. The Chinese Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that the transfer of the underwater drone was completed smoothly after friendly consultations between the United States and China.

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Photo by Cory M. Grenier, Flickr

Seizure may have unsettled China and U.S. relations

On the Pentagon’s website, Peter Cook, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, confirmed that a Chinese vessel returned the submersible drone to a U.S. Navy ship in international waters near the Philippines.

Cook said, “The incident was inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea.”

Cook did not mention what the drone’s condition is now.

China’s seizure of the drone threatened to unsettle relations between the U.S. and China even more at a time when President-elect Donald Trump is willing to challenge and confront Beijing on several issues. The drone seizure may have been, at least partly, in response to Trump’s recent comments, including questioning a longstanding U.S. policy that Taiwan is part of China, notes CNN.

Michael Auslin, author of the upcoming book The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region, said, “Such a dramatic upping of the ante is out of character for China, and American officials should understand that Beijing now appears willing to take increasingly risky actions.”

We did not “steal” the drone

According to CNN, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied that the drone had been stolen.

This was in reply to a tweet from Trump on Sunday in which he said, “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back – let them keep it!”

“First I want to say we strongly dislike the term ‘steal’ as it’s entirely inaccurate,” the spokesperson said.

She added that the Chinese Navy discovered the device and identified and verified it in a professional and responsible manner.

The U.S., however, will continue to investigate the “unlawful” seizure, said the Pentagon. It took place in international waters around 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines. In a statement, the Pentagon said the U.S. remains committed to upholding the accepted norms and principles of freedom of navigation and international law. It will continue to sail, fly, and operate in the South China Sea wherever international law permits it, Pentagon said. China has built military bases in the South China Sea, where several territorial disputes have taken place.