Philippines accuses China of damaging its vessel at hotly contested shoal

The Philippines on Tuesday accused China’s coast guard of harassment and damaging one of its boats in a disputed area of the South China Sea, and rejected Beijing’s position that it had expelled two vessels from the hotly contested shoal.

The Philippine coast guard said its two vessels stood their ground at the Scarborough Shoal, a key battleground in the South China Sea, but that one sustained damage from use of water cannon by two Chinese coast guard ships.

“This damage serves as evidence of the forceful water pressure used by the China coast guard in their harassment of the Philippine vessels,” Philippine coast guard spokesperson Jay Tarriela said in a statement.

“They were not deterred and will persist in carrying out their legitimate operations to support Filipino fishermen and ensure their safety.”

No country has sovereignty over the strategically located Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing patch used by several countries that is close to major shipping lanes. The shoal falls inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

China has occupied the atoll for more than a decade and waters around its lagoon, which has long been a sanctuary for vessels during storms, have been the site of multiple confrontations in recent years.

China’s coast guard said the vessels had been expelled but did not provide details of the incident.

The Philippines’ Tarriela said its vessel, the BRP Bagacay, suffered damage to its railing and canopy and that China has installed a floating barrier at the shoal’s entrance, “effectively restricting access to the area.”

The two countries have traded accusations of illegal conduct at the shoal and the Philippines recently summoned a Chinese diplomat to explain what it calls aggressive maneuvers. China typically accuses the Philippines of encroaching on its territory.

China and Philippines previously said they would seek better communications and management around skirmishes in the vast South China Sea, but tensions have increased recently, as the Philippines forges stronger diplomatic and military ties with its ally the United States.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion of annual ship-borne commerce, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 said China’s expansive claim had no legal basis, a decision Beijing has rejected.