Philippines and China tussle over retrieving rocket debris floating in disputed South China Sea

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The Philippines and China tussled on Sunday over Chinese rocket debris in the disputed South China Sea, raising tensions ahead of a scheduled visit by US Vice President Kamala Harris.

A Chinese vessel allegedly blocked a Philippine naval boat twice before taking the debris it was towing off Thitu Island, which is occupied by the Philippines and known locally as Pag-asa Island, said Philippine Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos.

In a statement issued Monday, Carlos said that the Chinese coast guard had “forcefully retrieved” floating debris off the waters. He said local personnel used a long-range camera and spotted the debris about 800 yards away from a sandbar on Sunday and set out to inspect it.

The debris was described as “metallic” and similar to fragments recovered in other parts of the country two weeks ago, raising suspicions that it originated from a recent Chinese rocket launch, state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA) reported.

Speaking at a regular press conference on Monday, Mao Ning, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also confirmed that Chinese maritime police ships found an unknown floating object in the disputed waters on Sunday.

Mao denied any confrontation and told reporters “there was no so-called interception and seizure at the scene.”

“After identifying it as the debris of a rocket fairing recently launched by China, local personnel first salvaged 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 Chinese personnel expressed their gratitude to the Philippine side,” Mao said Monday.

The incident was reported Sunday, a day before a scheduled visit by Harris to the western province of Palawan where a Philippine military command in charge of defending and patrolling its waters on the edge of the South China Sea is located.

This was not the first time China’s space debris was found near the Philippines. Debris retrieved in 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 on November 9.

“In relation to this, PhilSA would like to reiterate its sustained efforts to promote and encourage accountability among nations for objects launched into space,” the statement said.

China has been criticized repeatedly for allowing rocket stages to make uncontrolled reentry to Earth, with NASA last year accusing Beijing for “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris” after parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.