The Chinese Embassy in Manila on Monday denied the claim of Philippine authorities that a China Coast Guard vessel harassed a Philippine Navy tug boat to forcibly take possession of a downed piece of rocket debris found floating near Pag-asa Island in Kalayaan town on Sunday, November 20.
“There was no so-called blocking of the course of a Philippine Navy boat and forcefully retrieving the object at the scene,” the embassy said Monday, citing China’s Foreign Ministry.
Flatly contradicting the statements issued separately by the Palawan police detachment in Kalayaan Island and the Western Command (WESCOM), China claimed that its CCG crew had a “friendly consultation” with the crew of the Philippine naval boat, a rubber hulled tow boat, who “voluntarily” turned over the debris to them.
“After friendly consultation, the Philippine side returned the floating object to the Chinese side on the spot. The Chinese side expressed gratitude to the Philippine side,” it stated.
“At around 8 a.m. on November 20, a China Coast Guard ship found an unidentified floating object in the waters off the Nansha Islands, which was later identified as the wreckage of the fairing of a rocket recently launched by China. Before the China Coast Guard found the said floating object some Philippine Navy personnel already retrieved and towed it,” the statement added.
Meanwhile, a maritime law expert urged the Philippine government to protest China’s latest display of aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea.
Dr. Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, pointed out in a series of Twitter posts that China violated international protocols in retrieving the debris already in possession of the Philippines.
“Under the international law of salvage, the PH units were well within their rights to recover the debris that was found floating at sea, apparently abandoned and discarded, which it was, considering that it used to be part of a spent booster rocket,” Batongbacal said.
He described the action of the China Coast Guard vessel had endangered the safety of the Philippine navy personnel aboard the tug boat and a “violation of COLREGs” (International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea).
He added that if China wanted it back, it could simply have requested it from the salvors. “This is provided for by international law on salvage drawn from both customary international and treaty law,” he said.
China’s behavior, he said, “continues to fly in the face of international law, and evince persistent intentional irresponsible and dangerous behavior toward countries it claims to be negotiating a Code of Conduct with.”
The incident has prompted Kalayaan officials to issue an advisory to its residents calling for caution and vigilance in their fishing activities.
In a statement, Kalayaan acting mayor Beltzasar Alindogan advised island residents to be on alert venturing out at sea in light of China’s recent display of aggressive behavior very close to Pag-asa itself.
“Acting Mayor Beltzasar Alindogan has advised the residents to be observant and report similar incidents to local authorities,” town spokesman Ariel Carlos told Palawan News.