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A test of resolve?

Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) personnel carry debris, which the Philippine Space Agency said has markings of the Long March 5B (CZ-5B) Chinese rocket launched on July 24, after it was found in waters off Mamburao town, Occidental Mindoro province in August 2022. PCG PHOTO VIA APPhilippine Coast Guard (PCG) personnel carry debris, which the Philippine Space Agency said has markings of the Long March 5B (CZ-5B) Chinese rocket launched on July 24, after it was found in waters off Mamburao town, Occidental Mindoro province in August 2022. PCG PHOTO VIA AP 

THE disturbing encounter that occurred last Sunday between Philippine Navy personnel and a ship of China’s Coast Guard near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea may certainly be regarded as more than it appeared.

Given the timing of the incident, occurring shortly after a meeting between President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and just ahead of a visit to the Philippines by US Vice President Kamala Harris, it very well could have been a test of the Philippines’ resolve to defend its interests in the West Philippine Sea, and of the Marcos administration’s expressed desire to work amicably with China. Conversely, the timing could have been completely coincidental and the incident a mere misunderstanding, which is the essence of the explanation provided by the Chinese government.

Regardless of what it was, the Philippines must handle the disruption in Philippine-China relations with utmost care. If it does so, it could provide an opportunity to reduce tensions in the West Philippine Sea.

To briefly recap the incident, on Sunday, November 20, Philippine Navy elements stationed at Pag-asa Island reported that they spotted a large piece of rocket debris floating offshore — presumed to be part of a booster stage of China’s recently launched Long March 5. A team was dispatched to retrieve the object and tow it to shore, but after doing so, according to the Navy report, their boat was intercepted by a nearby China Coast Guard ship, whose crew forcibly seized the object by cutting the towline and attaching it to their own ship.

The Chinese version of events, however, according to a foreign ministry statement provided by the Chinese embassy, is much different. The Coast Guard spotted the debris first, it said, but before it could be retrieved, the Philippine Navy boat arrived first. After a brief, friendly discussion, the statement continued, the Navy handed over the debris to the Coast Guard, and everyone peaceably went their separate ways.

On the recommendation of National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos, President Marcos directed that a note verbale be sent to the Chinese embassy asking for further explanation, as the two accounts of the incident are obviously contradictory.

It would be unfortunate and counterproductive to allow this incident to undo the progress made in President Marco’ recent engagement, and in the generally positive interactions between the Philippines and China since the start of his administration. Our government must take care not to inflame tensions with its response to the incident. However, it should be made clear to China that aggressive acts in the West Philippine Sea are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Whether that was what this incident was is irrelevant; the point is valid and non-negotiable under any circumstances.

Beyond that, however, the Philippines should offer China the opportunity to improve interactions and establish some mutually acceptable guidelines for activity in the West Philippine Sea; this, after all, was the Chinese government’s stated wish in its recent engagements with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian neighbors at the Asean and APEC meetings. China should welcome the opportunity to avoid any further “misunderstandings,” as it has characterized the incident a few days ago, as does the Philippines. The particulars of the recent incident offer a basis for an agreement to do just that.

The piece of rocket debris found near Pag-asa Island was just one of several that have appeared on Philippine shores recently, which is a consequence of the flight path of most Chinese space launches. It is likely to be a recurring problem; among other activity, China is also constructing a new space station, which will be the destination for many flights.

An agreement between the Philippines and China regarding the handling of space debris would be beneficial, as it would prevent other confusing or unnecessarily confrontational incidents and address safety concerns. Successfully reaching an agreement on this relatively small matter can also lay the groundwork for discussions on other concerns in the West Philippine Sea, and further reduce long-standing tensions.

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