According to Philippine military officials, China’s coast guard forcibly blocked a Philippine naval boat on Sunday as it was towing suspected rocket debris from the South China Sea to the Philippine-occupied Thitu island, the Associated Press reported.
Philippines sailors had spotted the debris and sailed off on a boat to retrieve it. As they were towing it back to the island, a Chinese coast guard vessel allegedly blocked their way twice before deploying an inflatable boat with two people on board. Chinese coast guard personnel cut the tow line attached to the debris and took possession, Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos told reporters on Monday.
However, China is denying that they forcibly took the debris away from the Philippine navy. “The Philippine side salvaged and towed the object first,” China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning is quoted as saying in the AP. “After friendly consultation at the site, the Philippine side returned the object to China, and China expressed appreciation for that.”
The dispute over the space debris took place days before Vice President Kamala Harris visited Manila on Tuesday, where she emphasized the United States’ support of the Philippines’ freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is located in the Western Pacific Ocean and has been a disputed waterway between China and the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. “An armed attack on the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US Mutual Defense commitments,” Harris is quoted in NBC News as saying.
“We must stand up for principles such as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, unimpeded lawful commerce, the peaceful resolution of disputes,” she added.
This isn’t the first time suspected Chinese rocket debris has been found in the Philippines. China’s Long March 5B rocket is notorious for its uncontrolled reentries into Earth’s atmosphere, which causes bits of the rocket to rain down in hard-to-predict locations. Debris from the inaugural launch of the Long March 5B rocket fell onto the Ivory Coast two years ago, causing damage to people’s property. For the rocket’s second flight, the booster fell into the Indian Ocean away from populated areas.
But on its third flight in July 2022, the Long March 5B rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere, with pieces of space junk crashing down onto parts of Indonesia and the Philippines. The Philippines coast guard has previously found metal debris with markings of the Chinese flag in the water on three separate occasions so far.
China seems to not care very much about its falling space debris, except—apparently—when it’s about to fall into the hands of a foreign country. In fact, the Chinese space agency wants to launch more of its Long March 5B rockets with no word yet on whether it plans to modify the rocket such that it’s capable of performing controlled entries onto remote, unpopulated areas. China has been heavily criticized for letting its rockets fall in an uncontrolled manner, with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson accusing China of “ failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” in a statement last year.
It’s not clear why China would want to seize its potential rocket debris before the Philippines got a hold of it, but perhaps it is a way to avoid accountability for its space debris, as well as emphasize its control of the South China Sea.