Intrusions of another kind

The Philippines has, in the past, filed diplomatic protests over China’s incursions into what several international rulings have affirmed to be its sovereign territory or exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

This week, the country came within a few miles of being intruded anew by China — not by its fishing boats or coast guard vessels, but by something dangerous that came from space. Not by fighter planes either as that something was a Chinese booster rocket that made an uncontrolled return to Earth over the weekend.

The United States Space Command confirmed in a Twitter post that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5B (CZ-5B) rocket reentered over the Indian Ocean at approximately 10:45 a.m., MDT, on 30 July 2022.

An Agence France-Presse (AFP) report said that as Washington chided Beijing over its failure to provide the world details about the descent, the China Manned Space Agency belatedly provided coordinates on the descent of the rocket parts. It reported “an impact area in the Sulu Sea, about 35 miles or 57 kilometers off the east coast of the Philippines’ Palawan Island.”

That’s China being irresponsible, more so since the rocket parts falling into the sea and not over the populated Philippine land masses could have been nothing more than luck. Beijing could not say to Filipinos or to Malaysians no-harm, no-foul.

Had China done the right thing of informing the world about where the rocket fragments were landing, the Philippine government could have issued a warning to Filipino fishermen not to venture anywhere near the anticipated impact areas.

China, too, tried to sound like the uncontrolled reentry of the rocket parts was no big deal or an event of little consequence, saying “most of its devices were ablated and destroyed during reentry.” The booster rocket was used the other Sunday to launch the second of three modules China used in expanding its Tiangong space station.

Malaysia, like the US, was not amused as its space agency, according to the AFP, detected rocket debris burning up on reentry before plummeting into the Sulu Sea northeast of the island of Borneo.

“The debris of the rocket caught fire while entering the Earth’s airspace, and the movement of the burning debris also crossed Malaysian airspace and could be detected in several areas, including crossing the airspace around the state of Sarawak,” Malaysia said.

China’s secrecy, as intimated by Malaysia, could have proven catastrophic had the debris hit passing planes.

The US space agency NASA, through its chief Bill Nelson, led the criticism of Beijing, saying the “failure to share details of the rocket’s descent was irresponsible and risky.”

“All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance,” Nelson wrote. “To allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.”

“Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth,” the NASA official intoned.

It’s not the first time that China endangered other nations with its activities related to Tiangong, dubbed as the crown jewel of its space exploration program. In April 2021, similar concerns were raised over the possible damage that might be caused by an unpredictable booster reentry when it sent its first Tiangong module into space.

“Objects generate immense amounts of heat and friction when they enter the atmosphere, which can cause them to burn up and disintegrate. But larger ones such as the Long March 5B may not be destroyed entirely,” the AFP reported.

It noted an earlier event in 2020 in which debris from a Chinese rocket booster fell on Ivory Coast villages, resulting to damage to property. Fortunately, no injuries or deaths were reported.

If China will not heed international calls to be more transparent in conducting its space exploration program, deaths arising from Chinese space junk would be inevitable. This is one issue the Philippines cannot keep quiet about.

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