The Philippines and China clashed on Sunday over Chinese missile debris in the disputed South China Sea, heightening tensions ahead of a planned visit by US Vice President Kamala Harris.
A Chinese ship is said to have twice blocked a Philippine Navy boat before taking debris it was dragging off Thitu Island, which is occupied by the Philippines and known locally as Pag-asa Island, the Philippine vice admiral said. Albert Carlos.
In a statement released Monday, Carlos said China’s coast guard had “forcibly removed” floating debris from the water. He said local staff used a long-range camera and saw the debris about half a mile away from a sandbar on Sunday and went to inspect it.
The debris was described as “metallic” and resembles fragments recovered in other parts of the country two weeks ago, raising suspicions that it came from a recent Chinese missile launch, the state-run Philippine News Agency reported ( PNA).
At a regular press conference on Monday, Mao Ning, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, also confirmed that Chinese maritime police vessels found an unknown floating object in the disputed waters on Sunday.
Mao denied any confrontation, telling reporters “there was no so-called interception and seizure at the scene.”
“After being identified as the debris of a missile fairing recently launched by China, local personnel first recovered and towed the floating object. After friendly negotiations between the two sides, the Philippine side returned the floating object to the Chinese side on site, and the Chinese staff expressed gratitude to the Philippine side,” Mao said on Monday.
The incident was reported Sunday, a day before a planned visit by Harris to the western province of Palawan, which is home to a Philippine military command tasked with defending and patrolling the waters bordering the South China Sea.
It was not the first time China’s space debris has been found near the Philippines. Debris picked up from two different locations off the waters of Palawan and Occidental Mindoro may have come from a Long March 5B rocket that China launched in late October, the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) said in a statement Nov. 9.
“In connection with this, PhilSA wishes to reiterate its ongoing efforts to promote and encourage accountability among nations for space-launched objects,” the statement said.
China has been repeatedly criticized for allowing rocket stages to return to Earth uncontrolled, with NASA last year accusing Beijing of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris” after parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.