Blasts heard near Thitu Island after Chinese vessel ‘forcefully’ takes rocket debris from Philippine boat

Philippine Coast Guard personnel monitoring Chinese vessels in the disputed South China Sea in a file photo on April 27, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA – Residents of the Philippines-occupied Thitu Island, part of the disputed Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, said they heard blasts on Sunday after a maritime encounter between the Philippine Navy and the China Coast Guard.

Military officials are verifying the source of the blasts, which the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported the police believe came from “artillery guns/weapons” from the nearby Subi Reef, one of the biggest artificial islands built by Beijing in the Spratlys.

The explosions were heard between 11.30am and 3pm on Sunday, a few hours after a Chinese Coast Guard vessel blocked a Philippine naval boat and “forcefully” took suspected rocket debris found floating off the coast of Thitu Island, the Philippine military said on Monday.

Vice-Admiral Alberto Carlos, commander of the Philippine military’s Western Command, said the Naval Station Emilio Liwanag (NSEL) sent a team to retrieve the metallic object that was found drifting towards a nearby sand bar at around 6.45am.

He added that the team tied the object to its boat and began moving towards the shore. But a Chinese Coast Guard vessel with bow number 5203 blocked the boat twice before deploying its rigid hull inflatable boat.

“The said Chinese Coast Guard inflatable boat forcefully retrieved said floating object by cutting the towing line attached to the NSEL rubber boat. The rigid hull inflatable boat then towed it back to the Chinese Coast Guard vessel,” he said.

The NSEL team returned to base unharmed.

In contrast, the Chinese Embassy in Manila said in a statement issued past 9pm on Monday: “There was no so-called blocking of the course of a Philippine Navy boat and forcefully retrieving the object at the scene.”

It said the Chinese coast guard found the floating object, but the Philippine Navy allegedly retrieved it first and returned the debris to its Chinese counterpart “after friendly consultation”.

“The Chinese side expressed gratitude to the Philippine side,” said the embassy.

The incidents occurred the same day that US Vice-President Kamala Harris arrived in Manila, where she held a series of engagements including meetings with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Vice-President Sara Duterte.

On Tuesday, she is set to visit the island province of Palawan, the biggest Philippine island adjacent to the Spratlys. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the area.

An international tribunal struck down Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea in 2016 and ruled that the West Philippine Sea, where Palawan is located, belongs to Manila.

China does not recognise the ruling but Washington has vowed to defend its military ally if Philippine forces are attacked in the South China Sea. The waterway is a conduit for about US$3 trillion (S$4.1 trillion) worth of ship-borne trade each year.

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