The Philippines and China clashed over Chinese missile debris in the disputed South China Sea on Sunday, raising tensions ahead of a planned visit by US Vice President Kamala Harris.
A Chinese ship allegedly blockaded a Philippine Navy boat twice before taking the debris it was hauling off Thitu Island, occupied by the Philippines and known locally as Pag-asa Island, Philippine Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said.
In a statement released Monday, Carlos said that the Chinese Coast Guard “forcefully recovered” floating debris from the water. He said local staff used a long-range camera and spotted the wreckage about 800 meters from a sandbar on Sunday and set out to inspect it.
The debris was described as “metallic” and resembled fragments found in other parts of the country two weeks ago, raising suspicions that they came from a recent Chinese missile launch, the state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA) reported.
At a regular press conference on Monday, Mao Ning, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, also confirmed that ships belonging to China’s Maritime Police found an unknown floating object in the disputed waters on Sunday.
Mao denied any confrontation, telling reporters, “There was no so-called wiretapping and seizure at the scene.”
“After identifying it as debris from a missile fairing recently launched by China, local officials initially 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 the spot, and the Chinese staff expressed their gratitude to the Philippine side,” Mao said Monday.
The incident was reported on Sunday, a day before Harris planned a visit to western Palawan province, home to a Philippine military command tasked with defending and patrolling its waters bordering the South China Sea.
This wasn’t the first time China’s space junk has been found near the Philippines. Debris recovered from two different locations off Palawan and Occidental Mindoro waters may have come from a Long March 5B rocket that China launched in late October, the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) said in a Nov. 9 statement .
“In this regard, PhilSA wishes to reiterate its ongoing efforts to encourage and promote accountability of nations for objects launched into space,” the statement said.
China has been repeatedly criticized for allowing rocket stages to uncontrolled re-entry to Earth, with NASA last year accusing Beijing of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding its space debris” after parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.