China has denied that one of its coast guard ships forcefully retrieved a piece of a rocket floating in the ocean that was being towed by a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea.
At a news conference on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said: “People from the Philippines side salvaged and towed the floating object first. After both sides had a friendly negotiation at the scene, the Philippines handed over the floating object to us.”
Ms Mao said that the object was debris from a rocket’s payload fairing, which is the protective casing around the nose-cone of a spacecraft - launched by China.
“It was not a situation in which we waylaid and grabbed the object,” she said.
Earlier a Philippine military commander had said that a Chinese coast guard ship “forcefully retrieved” the object by cutting a line attaching it to a Philippine boat.
In a statement vice admiral Alberto Carlos, commander of the Philippine Western Command said that authorities sent a vessel to examine the object after it was spotted early on Sunday around 800 yards (730m) west of Thitu Island.
He added that the Philippine team tied the object to their boat and started towing it before the Chinese vessel approached and blocked their course twice before deploying an inflatable boat that cut the tow line, then took the object back to the coast guard ship.
The Philippines’s foreign ministry has said that it will review the incident.
It also said that it was awaiting detailed reports from maritime law enforcement agencies.
The incident came as US vice president Kamala Harris arrived in the Philippines on Sunday.
It was the latest in long-simmering territorial disputes in the strategic waterway, involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The US is aiming to boost ties with the country in an effort to counter China’s policies towards Taiwan.
“The US and the Philippines stand together as friends, partners, and allies,” a statement issued by Ms Harris’s aides said on Monday.
“Now and always, the US commitment to the defense of the Philippines is ironclad.”
(Additional reporting by agencies)