Philippine military says China ‘forcefully retrieved’ floating object in South China Sea

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MANILA, Nov 21 (Reuters) – A Chinese coast guard ship on Sunday “forcefully retrieved” a floating object being towed by a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea by cutting a line attaching it to the boat, a Philippine military commander said.

Philippine naval authorities sent a vessel to examine the floating object after it was spotted early on Sunday about 800 yards (730 metres) west of Thitu island, Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, commander of the Western Command (WESCOM), said in a statement.

The team tied the object to their boat and started towing it before the Chinese coast guard 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 statement said.

The statement did not say what the object was or whether the Chinese coast guard vessel indicated why it took the object.

China’s embassy in the Philippines did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The incident occurred as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in the Philippines on Sunday for talks aimed at reviving ties with Manila, an Asian ally that is central to U.S. efforts to counter China’s increasingly assertive policies towards Taiwan.

Harris, whose three-day trip includes a stop on Palawan, an island on the edge of the South China Sea, will also reaffirm Washington’s support for a 2016 international tribunal ruling that invalidated China’s expansive claim in the disputed waterway, a senior U.S. official said..

China claims most of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which billions of dollars of goods passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

Thitu, known to Filipinos as Pagasa, is close to Subi Reef, one of seven artificial islands in the Spratlys on which China has installed surface-to-air missiles and other weapons.

Thitu, one of nine features the Philippines occupies in the Spratly archipelago, is the Southeast Asian country’s strategically most important outpost in the South China Sea.

The Philippine foreign ministry said in a statement it would conduct a thorough review of the incident and was awaiting detailed reports from maritime law enforcement agencies.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Writing by Ed Davies;Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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