MANILA, Philippines — In another clash in the disputed South China Sea, the Chinese coast guard forcibly grabbed floating debris that the Philippine navy was bringing to its island, a Philippine military officer said Monday. It looked that the debris was from a Chinese rocket launch.
Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said Monday that the Chinese warship twice stopped the Philippine military vessel before seizing the debris it was dragging Sunday off Philippine-occupied Thitu Island. He stated that no one was hurt in the incident.
It is the latest flare-up in the key waterway’s long-running territorial disputes between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
In the past, Chinese coast guard ships have stopped Philippine supply boats transporting supplies to Filipino forces in disputed waters, but capturing goods in the custody of another country’s military was a more audacious conduct.
Carlos stated that the Filipino sailors observed the debris drifting in heavy waves near a sandbar about 800 yards (540 meters) distant while using a long-range camera on Thitu island. They launched their boat, retrieved the floating object, and began to tow it back to their island using a rope hooked to their boat.
“They saw that China coast guard vessel with bow number 5203 was nearing their area and subsequently impeded their pre-plotted course twice,” Carlos said in a statement.
The Chinese coast guard vessel subsequently launched an inflatable boat with personnel who “forcefully removed said floating device by breaking the towing rope attached to the” rubber boat of the Filipino seamen. Carlos stated that the Filipino seamen decided to return to their island without going into further detail.
The floating metal object was similar to a number of other bits of Chinese rocket wreckage recently discovered in Philippine waters, according to Maj. Cherryl Tindog, spokesperson for the military’s Western Command. She further stated that the Filipino sailors did not oppose the seizure.
“In such a case, we practice greatest tolerance,” Tindog told reporters. “Because it was an unidentifiable object and not a matter of life or death, our team simply decided to return.”
Metal debris from Chinese rocket launches, some of which appear to bear the Chinese flag, has been discovered in at least three previous cases in Philippine waters. China has come under fire for the discovery of Chinese rocket debris.
Rockets flown in recent months from China’s Hainan island’s Wenchang Space Launch Center transported construction materials and supplies for China’s crewed space station.
The Philippine government has filed a series of diplomatic accusations against China in recent years for such aggressive acts in the South China Sea, but it did not immediately state what action it will take in response to Sunday’s incident. Normally, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila would wait for the results of an official investigation before filing a protest.
Thitu island, also known as Pag-asa by Filipinos, is home to a fishing community and Filipino forces. It is located near Subi, one of seven disputed reefs in the offshore region that China has turned into missile-protected islands, including three with runways that US security officials say now resemble military forward bases.
The Philippines and other minor claimant nations in the disputed zone have strongly objected and expressed concern over China’s growing assertive operations in the major waterway, backed by the US and other Western countries.
US Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to fly to the western province of Palawan, which faces the South China Sea, on Tuesday to reiterate American support for the Philippines and renew the US commitment to defend its long-time treaty ally if Filipino forces, ships, and aircraft are attacked in the disputed waters.