China warns of rocket remnants hitting area within disputed South China Sea

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Chinese vessels in the disputed South China Sea
Image Source : REUTERS Chinese vessels in the disputed South China Sea

China on Tuesday warned that remnants of a rocket would hit an area in the disputed South China Sea following the deployment of its most powerful launch vehicle more than a week ago. The rocket debris is expected to fall near the coast of China’s Hainan province, according to the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration.

On December 15, China launched the Long March 5 rocket from Hainan’s Wenchang launch site, the sixth launch of the rocket type since its first flight in 2016. A variant of the rocket, the Long March 5B, was previously used to launch China’s probe to Mars and also modules of its space station.

In 2020, debris from a Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast and damaged several buildings, causing widespread concerns when China launched Long March 5B in 2021. Beijing described the Long March 5 mission as “a high-orbit optical remote sensing satellite” to launch large payloads.

According to Chinese media, the “satellite” will be used in land surveys, crop yield assessments, environmental management, meteorological warning and forecasting, and disaster prevention and relief. At the time of the December 15 launch, the fairing of the payload atop the rocket was 18.5 metres, far longer than the usual 12.167 m and suggesting an “unusually large satellite”.

The unusual payload has sparked guesses that it is a high-altitude satellite that would hold above the Earth at a fixed location, allowing it to peer down continuously at a certain region from its perch.

Concerns in the South China Sea

China has staked claim to virtually all of the reefs and other outcroppings in the South China Sea, building some into islands with runways that could be used by the military. Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also say they are the rightful owners of territory in the same waters in a complex web of overlapping claims.

Tensions have flared particularly between China and the Philippines, with both countries trading accusations over a series of maritime run-ins, including China allegedly ramming a ship this month carrying the Philippines’ military chief. 

Responding to China’s accusations that Manila is encroaching on its territory, the Philippines said that it is not provoking conflict in the South China Sea. “We follow international law and we are only implementing our domestic law, meaning the limits of our territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, where we have sovereign rights,” said Medel Aguilar.

Aguilar said Philippine activities would not put vessels and seafarers in danger, instead accusing China of carrying out dangerous manoeuvres that sometimes result in collisions at sea. “They are the ones committing all the violations,” he added.

China also recently accused an American naval ship of “illegally intruding” into waters near the Second Thomas Shoal. It said that the US is meddling in waters far from its shores and renewed its accusation that America is the one raising regional tensions following the sailing of the USS Giffords, a littoral combat ship designed to operate in coastal areas, near Second Thomas Shoal.

(with inputs from Reuters)

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