China’s coast guard forcibly seized the suspected wreckage of a Chinese missile that the Philippine navy was towing to its island in the South China Sea, Philippine military officials said in the latest clash in the disputed sea.
A Chinese vessel twice blocked a Philippine naval ship before seizing the floating debris it was towing off the Philippine-occupied island of Thitu on Sunday, Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said on Monday. He said no one was injured in the incident.
Chinese coast guard ships have in the past blocked Philippine supply boats delivering supplies to Philippine forces in disputed waters, but seizing items in the possession of another nation’s military was a more brazen act.
The incident occurred a day before US Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled to visit the western province of Palawan, which overlooks the South China Sea. At a meeting with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Manila on Monday, Harris praised the long and enduring relationship between the two nations and vowed that America’s commitment is “unwavering.
Her visit aims to underscore US support for the Philippines and renew the US commitment to defend Philippine forces, ships and aircraft if attacked in disputed waters.
Monday’s incident is the latest flare-up of long-running territorial disputes in the strategic waterway involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Carlos said Filipino sailors using a remote camera on Thitu Island spotted debris drifting in strong waves near a sandbar just over 500 meters away. They set out on a boat, picked up the floating object and began towing it back to their island using a rope tied to their boat.
As the Filipino sailors were moving back to their island, they “observed that the Chinese Coast Guard vessel with bow number 5203 was approaching their location and subsequently blocked their pre-set course twice,” Carlos said in a statement.
The Chinese vessel then deployed an inflatable boat with personnel who “forcibly retrieved the said floating object by cutting the towline attached to” the rubber boat of the Filipino sailors. The Filipino sailors decided to return to their island, Carlos said, without elaborating on what happened.
Major Cherryl Tindog, a spokesman for the Philippine military’s Western Command, said the floating metal object looked similar to a number of other Chinese missile fragments recently found in Philippine waters. She added that the Filipino sailors did not fight the seizure.
“We practice maximum tolerance in a situation like this,” Tindog said. “Since it was an unidentified object and not a matter of life and death, our team just decided to go back.
Metal fragments from Chinese missile launches, some showing 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 manned space station.
China has previously been criticized for allowing rocket stages to fall unchecked to Earth. NASA last year accused Beijing of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding its space debris” after parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean, and the Philippine Space Agency earlier this month urged the Philippines to ratify UN treaties providing the basis for compensation. for damage caused by other nations’ space debris.
The Philippine government has filed multiple diplomatic protests against China over aggressive actions in the South China Sea, but did not immediately say what action it would take after Sunday’s incident. The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila usually waits for an official investigation report before filing a protest.
Thitu Island, which Filipinos call Pag-asa, hosts a fishing community and Philippine forces and lies near Subi, one of seven contested reefs in the offshore area that China has turned into anti-missile islands, including three with airstrips that U.S. security officials say they now resemble military outposts.
The Philippines and other smaller claimant countries in the disputed region, backed by the US and other Western countries, have strongly protested and raised concerns about China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the busy waterway.