China said Friday that a near-collision in the South China Sea between a Chinese coast guard ship and Philippine patrol vessel carrying journalists was caused by the latter's "premeditated and provocative action."
The near-miss off the Spratly Islands on Sunday was the latest in a steady string of incidents between China and the Philippines in the contested waterway.
The incident happened after Philippine coast guard boats approached Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), known in China as Ren'ai Jiao. As one boat neared the shoal, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel more than twice its size sailed into its path.
AFP journalists watched the incident from another Philippine coast guard boat, which was less than a kilometer away.
The Philippine captain said the Chinese ship came within 45 meters (50 yards) of his boat and only his quick actions avoided the steel-hulled vessels crashing into each other.
Asked about the incident on Friday at a regular press briefing, the Chinese foreign ministry said the Philippine boats had "intruded" without China's permission.
"The Chinese coast guard vessel safeguarded China's territorial sovereignty and maritime order, in accordance with the law, while taking timely measures to avoid the dangerous approach of Philippine vessels and to avoid a collision," said spokeswoman Mao Ning.
"It was a premeditated and provocative action for the Philippine vessel to barge into the waters of Ren'ai Jiao with journalists on board, the aim was to deliberately find fault and take the opportunity to hype up the incident," she added.
"China strongly protests and deplores this. We urge the Philippine side to respect China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and stop making moves that might complicate the situation," the official said.
"The Ren’ai Reef is part of China’s Nansha Islands," Mao said, adding that "the Chinese side's maneuvers were professional and restrained."
In Manila, the Philippines called on China anew to respect the legal rights of the country to conduct maritime patrols following the incident.
"First of all, I would like to emphasize that the Philippines has the legal right to carry out routine maritime patrols in our territorial waters and EEZ. The deployment of the BRP Malabrigo and BRP Malapascua in the West Philippine Sea from April 18 to 24 was one such mission," DFA spokesperson Tess Daza said.
"The China Coast Guard’s interference with this routine patrol mission was totally inconsistent with freedom of navigation, and a number of documented incidents also involved highly dangerous maneuvers that were contrary to standard navigational practices," she added.
Daza said "similar maneuvers were documented on April 19, involving CCG 5201 and 4202, and the BRP Malapascua while the latter was en route to Ayungin Shoal."
"We again call on China to respect the Philippines’ rights over the West Philippine Sea, as provided by UNCLOS, and refrain from actions that may cause an untoward incident," she added.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, ignoring an international ruling that the assertion has no legal basis. — Agence France-Presse with GMA Integrated News