The Philippines military has claimed that the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) "forcefully" seized an unidentified floating object retrieved by them off the disputed waters near the Thitu island.
A statement by the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Command (Wescom) said its naval station noticed the object drifting about 800 yards west off the island on Sunday morning through a long-range camera. The military sent a vessel to examine the object and tow it, reported CNN Philippines.
Though there isn't a clear picture about what the device was, Wescom officials believe it looked similar to the debris earlier found in Palawan, which the Philippine Space Agency said was likely the part of a Chinese rocket.
According to Wescom Commander Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, the team tied the object to their boat so that they could bring it back to the station for further studies. "However, as the NSEL Team was towing the floating object, they noticed that a China Coast Guard vessel with Bow Number 5203 was approaching their location and subsequently blocked their pre-plotted course twice," he narrated.
The Chinese vessel then reportedly deployed its rigid hull inflatable boat and took the object by cutting the towing line attached to the Philippine rubber boat. The Chinese inflatable boat then seized the object before towing it back to the main vessel.
According to the Philippines military, they decided to maintain "maximum tolerance" and return to land since the object was "unidentified and getting it was not a matter of life and death."
The Philippines consider the Thitu or the Pag-asa Island as their territory while China contests it, as part of its bid to monopolize the South China Sea.
It has not been decided whether Manila will file a diplomatic protest over the issue while the Chinese embassy in the Philippines has not responded.
Incidentally, this comes the day U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in the Philippines on Sunday for talks aimed at reviving ties with Manila. The Philippines is an important ally of the US in its bid to counter China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Harris' three-day trip also includes a stop on Palawan, an island on the edge of the South China Sea. This is seen as a move to reassert the US support for the 2016 international tribunal ruling rejecting China's expansive claim in the disputed waterway.