China’s coast guard forcibly seized the suspected debris of a Chinese rocket that the Philippine navy was towing to its island in the South China Sea, Philippines military officials have said, in the latest confrontation in the disputed sea.
The Chinese vessel twice blocked the Philippine naval boat before seizing the floating debris it was towing on Sunday off Philippine-occupied Thitu island, Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said on Monday. He said no one was injured in the incident.
Chinese coast guard ships have blocked Philippine supply boats delivering supplies to Filipino forces in the disputed waters in the past, but seizing objects in the possession of another nation’s military constituted a more brazen act.
The incident comes a day before a scheduled visit by the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, to the western province of Palawan, which faces the South China Sea. The aim of the visit is to underscore American support for the Philippines and to renew the US commitment to defend Filipino forces, ships and aircraft if they come under attack in the disputed waters.
It’s the latest flare-up in long-simmering territorial disputes in the strategic waterway involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Carlos said the Filipino sailors, using a long-range camera on Thitu island, spotted the debris drifting in strong waves near a sandbar a little over 500 meters away. They set out on a boat and retrieved the floating object and started to tow it back to their island using a rope tied to their boat.
As the Filipino sailors were moving back to their island, “they noticed that China coast guard vessel with bow number 5203 was approaching their location and subsequently blocked their pre-plotted course twice”, Carlos said in a statement.
The Chinese vessel then deployed an inflatable boat with personnel who “forcefully retrieved said floating object by cutting the towing line attached to the” Filipino sailors’ rubber boat. The Filipino sailors decided to return to their island, Carlos said, without detailing what happened.
Major Cherryl Tindog, a spokesperson for the Philippines military’s western command, said the floating metal object appeared similar to a number of other pieces of Chinese rocket debris recently found in Philippine waters. She added the Filipino sailors did not fight the seizure.
“We practice maximum tolerance in such a situation,” Tindog said. “Since it involved an unidentified object and not a matter of life and death, our team just decided to return.”
Metal debris from Chinese rocket launches, some showing a part of what appears to be a Chinese flag, have been found in Philippine waters on at least three other occasions.
Rockets launched from the Wenchang space launch center on China’s Hainan island in recent months have carried construction materials and supplies for China’s crewed space station.
China has been criticized previously for allowing rocket stages to fall to Earth uncontrolled. Nasa accused Beijing last year of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris” after parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean, and the Philippine Space Agency earlier this month pressed for the Philippines to ratify UN treaties providing a basis for compensation for harm from other nations’ space debris.
The Philippine government has filed many diplomatic protests against China over aggressive actions in the South China Sea but it did not immediately say what action it would take following Sunday’s incident. The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila usually waits for an official investigation report before lodging a protest.
Thitu island, which Filipinos call Pag-asa, hosts a fishing community and Filipino forces and lies near Subi, one of seven disputed reefs in the offshore region that China has turned into missile-protected islands, including three with runways, which US security officials say now resemble military forward bases.
The Philippines and other smaller claimant nations in the disputed region, backed by the US and other western countries, have strongly protested and raised alarm over China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the busy waterway.