The Chinese reportedly stole an unmanned underwater drone from the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, northwest of Subic Bay, the Philippines, on Thursday. (Military Sealift Command photo)

China stole a U.S. Navy underwater drone in international waters in the South China Sea, according to reports on Friday.

A Chinese warship took the unmanned underwater vehicle on Thursday northwest of Subic Bay, the Philippines, just as the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, was about to retrieve it, Reuters said, quoting a defense official.

The Bowditch had stopped to recover two underwater unmanned vehicles when a Chinese vessel put a small boat in the water and picked up one of the drones, CNN reported. The Chinese did not respond to American radio messages that the drone was the property of the U.S.

U.S. research drones are often followed in case they are spying or collecting intelligence, but the drone picked up by the Chinese was just measuring ocean conditions, an official told CNN.

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