Chinese Forces Seize Rocket Debris From Philippine Navy

China Coast Guard cutter seen through a porthole
File image of a (different) China Coast Guard cutter (USCG)

Published Nov 21, 2022 6:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Philippine Navy has accused Chinese forces of "forcefully retrieving" a suspected piece of rocket debris that had been seized by a Philippine patrol in the South China Sea.

At about 0645 hours on Saturday, watchstanders on Philippine-held Thitu Island spotted metallic debris near a sandbar about 500 meters offshore. They dispatched a small boat crew to investigate, and the team affixed a tow line and began to tow it back into shore. 

As they were making way back towards shore, a China Coast Guard vessel (pennant number 5203) allegedly approached and blocked their course two times, according to Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos. The Chinese vessel launched a small boat team, and they approached the Philippine Navy boat and cut its tow line. The Chinese team proceeded to seize the metal object and returned to their ship. The Philippine Navy did not attempt to stop them because it was "not a matter of life or death," a spokesperson for the Philippine military told media.

Metal debris believed to come from China's Long March space rocket launch program has been found in several locations in Philippine waters in recent months, raising safety concerns. The size of the debris is larger than Western standards for disintegration on return to earth. 

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris," said NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson last year. “It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China Coast Guard hull 5203 (Haijing 5203) also shadowed the U.S. Coast Guard cutter USCGC Legend during a visit to the region earlier this year. The same vessel was also allegedly involved in harassing Malaysian oil and gas operations in the South China Sea in late 2019. 

The run-in at Thitu Island is the latest in a long string of confrontations between Chinese and Philippine forces in the South China Sea. The new administration of Ferdinand "Bongbong" Romualdez Marcos Jr. has prioritized the nation's relationship with the United States as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism, and the rocket-debris incident occurred just before U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Manila meet with Marcos and affirm America's commitment to Philippine sovereignty. 

“I have said many times, I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States," Marcos told reporters Monday after meeting with Harris. 

Harris will also make a trip to a military base on Palawan, the Philippine home island located closest to the Spratly chain, where friction with China is strongest. However, her itinerary does not include a stopover in any of the front-line contested areas.

Harris' visit comes against a backdrop of basing negotiations. The U.S. and the Philippines are moving quickly towards implementing an American military provisioning presence after years of slow-walking under the previous administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte. While the planned installations are nothing like the once-bustling outposts at Subic Bay, Naval Air Base Manila and Clark Air Base - once among America's largest overseas military bases - they will improve the supply chain for U.S. forces in the South China Sea. Future sites may include supply locations in Cagayan, the nearest part of the Philippines to Taiwan, as well as sites on Palawan.