MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines has sought an explanation from China after a Philippine military commander reported that the Chinese coast guard forcibly seized Chinese rocket wreckage in the possession of Philippine navy personnel in the disputed South China Sea, officials said Thursday.
Sunday’s incident off the Philippine-occupied island of Thitu is the latest flare-up in longstanding territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. China has denied that its coast guard forcibly seized the debris from the Filipino sailors.
Foreign Affairs Department spokeswoman in Manila, Maria Theresa Daza, said without elaborating that a diplomatic note had been sent to China for “clarification from the Chinese side on the incident.”
Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, who heads the army’s Western Command, said Filipino sailors, using a long-range camera, saw the debris drifting in strong waves near a sandbank about 800 yards (540 meters) away. the coast. They set out in a boat, retrieved the floating object, and began towing it back to Thitu Island.
While traveling back to the island, “they noticed a Chinese coast guard ship with bow number 5203 approaching their location and subsequently blocked their pre-arranged course twice,” Carlos said in a statement. .
The Chinese coast guard ship then deployed an inflatable boat with personnel who “forcibly recovered said floating object by cutting the tow line” attached to the Filipino sailors’ rubber dinghy. The sailors decided to return to their island, Carlos said, without detailing what happened.
Chinese coast guard ships have in the past blocked Philippine supply ships delivering supplies to Philippine forces in disputed waters, but seizing items held by another nation’s military constitutes a more brazen act.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing has denied that the debris was forcibly seized.
“The Philippine side rescued and towed the object first. After a friendly consultation on the site, the Philippine side returned the item to China and China expressed its appreciation for that,” ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Monday. “There was no such thing as forcible interception or seizure at the scene.”
Responding to China’s denial, senior Philippine defense official José Faustino Jr. stood firm on the accounts of Philippine navy personnel, saying the Chinese coast guard “rudely” cleared debris for them.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said he will also seek clarification when he visits Beijing in January to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Faustino said a separate Philippine investigation was underway after Filipino villagers in Thitu reported hearing unexplained explosions on Sunday.
It was not clear where the thunder-like explosions, which caused slight tremors in the ground, came from and what their nature was. The island’s villagers were alarmed, authorities said, adding that they prepared an evacuation plan in case it was necessary.
Thitu, which Filipinos call Pagasa, or hope, is home to a fishing community and Filipino forces and is located near Subi, one of seven disputed reefs that China has turned into missile-protected islands in disputed waters. US security officials say the developed islands, including three with military-grade airstrips, now resemble advanced military bases.
The Philippines and other smaller claimant nations in the disputed region, backed by the United States and other Western countries, have protested and sounded the alarm at China’s increasingly aggressive actions on the busy waterway. The Philippines has lodged 189 diplomatic protests against China over territorial divisions this year alone, the Department of Foreign Affairs said.