A Philippine navy commander has accused the Chinese Coast Guard of gunning down two of its vessels in the South China Sea and shooting at it for the first time in a confrontation between the two sides.
Commander Antonio Maingoan said a helicopter spotted the supply vessels of the Philippine navy on July 12, but had to turn back when Chinese vessels fired at the boats.
The incident followed weeks of growing tension in the South China Sea, the world’s busiest oil and gas route, which is one of Asia’s biggest security flashpoints.
China claims most of the energy-rich sea, through which $5tn (£3.3tn) in ship-borne trade passes every year. It has recently accelerated construction of facilities in waters claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
The Chinese coast guard fired on the Philippine navy supply vessel (Rescue ship) and two smaller boats, according to Lt General Noel Della Vega. Photograph: Philippine navy
The confrontation occurred while Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats were protesting against the presence of the Philippines navy supply vessels in disputed waters, Lt General Noel Della Vega, commander of the Philippine navy, told reporters on Monday.
Della Vega accused the Chinese coast guard of gunning down two of his navy vessels and firing at them for the first time. “We saw the Chinese gun down the two vessels, and we immediately turned back. The process is this: they fired at us,” he said.
The Philippine navy is now demanding that the Chinese side fully explain its actions, which the coast guard said took place when Philippine ships had “illegally intruded” into Chinese waters.
“The regrettable incident should not and will not be accepted,” the Chinese coast guard said in a statement on Tuesday.
Della Vega said it was the first time the Chinese coast guard had fired at its ships. Philippines authorities would decide whether to seek prosecution for the missing Chinese sailors, he said.
Separately, 10 Filipino fishermen, reportedly from the same fishing village in Cagayan de Oro city, were arrested after their boat was seized in a Chinese territorial claim. A third fisherman was wounded in the hands in a clash with the Chinese.
The Chinese coast guard alleged that the Philippines coast guard was to blame for the incident. It said the fishing boat was seized when “the boat intentionally and recklessly overran the Chinese watertight envelope” in the South China Sea.
But local military chief Jun Reyes said his forces had boarded the detained boat on Thursday to “pursue” the fishermen.
“We have that vessel all the way to Cabo San Lucas and the coast guard is here to keep us company,” Reyes said. “They have agreed to allow us to finish what we were doing, and to provide security.”
Reyes told reporters he had asked the coast guard to give up the seized boat. “I believe if we start to play games, we will start a problem and the coast guard better bring their handcuffs to jail,” he said.
Another fishing boat is reported to have been seized off the northwestern Philippines and the coast guard is also pursuing it.
Della Vega said the Chinese coast guard had no right to blockade the fishermen, despite the fishing vessel’s involvement in the disputed area. “They [China] are claiming that this is their fishing area,” he said. “But the fishing area is a legitimate navigational space.”
He said Filipino fisheries were badly hit by the increasing number of high-seas patrols by the Chinese and Vietnamese coast guards and naval patrols.