MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The Philippines have asked China for an explanation after a Philippine military commander reported that Chinese coast guards had forcibly confiscated Chinese missile debris owned by Philippine naval personnel in the disputed South China Sea, officials said Thursday.
Sunday’s incident off the Philippine-held island of Thitu is the latest flare-up in long-simmering territorial disputes between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. China has denied its coast guard forcibly confiscated the wreckage from the Filipino sailors.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman in Manila Maria Theresa Daza said without elaborating that a diplomatic note was forwarded to China “to clarify the incident from the Chinese side”.
Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, who heads the military’s Western Command, said Filipino sailors used a long-range camera to spot the debris drifting in strong waves near a sandbar about 800 yards (540 meters) offshore. They got on a boat and retrieved the floating object and began towing it back to Thitu Island.
As they traveled back to the island, “they noticed a China Coast Guard vessel, bow number 5203, approaching their location and subsequently twice blocking their pre-determined course,” Carlos said in a statement.
The Chinese Coast Guard ship then deployed an inflatable boat with personnel that “forcedly retrieved the floating object by cutting the tow line” attached to the Filipino sailors’ rubber boat. The sailors decided to return to their island, Carlos said, without elaborating on what happened.
China Coast Guard vessels have in the past blocked Philippine supply boats delivering supplies to Philippine forces in disputed waters, but seizing items belonging to another nation’s military is a brazen act.
China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing has denied that the rubble was forcibly confiscated.
“The Philippine side recovered and towed the object first. After friendly on-site consultation, the Philippine side returned the object to China, and China expressed its appreciation for it,” ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Monday. “There was no such thing as an interception or forcible seizure at the scene of a crime.”
In response to China’s denial, senior Philippine defense official Jose Faustino Jr. stood by the reports of Philippine naval personnel and said the wreckage was “rudely” taken from them by the Chinese Coast Guard.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said he will also seek clarification when he visits Beijing in January to meet with China’s leader Xi Jinping.
Faustino said a separate Filipino investigation is underway after Filipino villagers on Thitu reported hearing unexplained explosions on Sunday.
It was not clear where the thunderous explosions, which caused slight shaking on the ground, came from or what their nature was. Villagers on the island are alarmed, officials said, adding they have prepared an evacuation plan should the need arise.
Thitu, which Filipinos call Pagasa, or Hope, is home to a fishing community and Filipino military forces, and is near Subi, one of seven disputed reefs that China has turned into missile-proof islands in the disputed waters. US security officials say the developed islands, including three with military airstrips, now resemble forward military bases.
The Philippines and other smaller applicant nations in the disputed region, backed by the United States and other Western countries, have protested and sounded the alarm over China’s increasingly aggressive crackdown on the busy waterway. The Philippines has filed 189 diplomatic protests against China over territorial rifts this year alone, the foreign ministry said.