A group of Filipino fishermen accused China's coast guard of shooting at their vessel in disputed South China Sea waters, Philippine authorities said on Friday. The authorities added that there were no casualties during the incident.
Philippine officials said the attack took place near a Chinese-occupied section of the Spratly archipelago on March 27. The officials were investigating the reported attack on the Princess Johann boat.
"(Princess Johann) was reportedly fired upon seven times by a Chinese speedboat with seven Chinese coast guards on board," a Philippine Coast Guard statement said. The guard said the armed speedboat approached the Filipino vessel after it dropped anchor about 3.7km off the Chinese side of the Union Banks atoll. "The crew hid and eventually cut their anchor line and fled the area," the statement added.
The representatives at the Chinese embassy in Manila could not be reached for comment on Friday. The Philippine coast guard and military are investigating the incident. "(The Union Banks) is located inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone," Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, military spokesman told AFP.
According to analysts, if the incident is confirmed then this would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two countries. Ever since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took over the office in mid-2016, both the nations have seen warming relations.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea grants coastal states exclusive rights to develop and exploit natural resources in the waters that extend up to 370 km off their coasts.
Manila has been at loggerhead with Beijing over the control of some territories of South China Sea. China claims most of the region, through which more than $5 trillion of trade happens annually, while Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have rival claims. In recent years, China has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands that can house military facilities.
An arbitration court in July ruled that China's vast claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis. The court criticized Beijing's environmental destruction in the disputed area.
The ruling infuriated China and it refused to accept the verdict. Philippines, which filed the arbitration case, requested China to accept the ruling a number of times but Beijing called the Philippines' claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea "baseless" and an "act of bad faith".
Reversing the course set by predecessor Benigno Aquino, Duterte has sought to improve his nation's relations with Beijing by adopting a non-confrontational approach over their competing claims to the strategically vital waters.
Duterte said China has allowed Filipinos to fish in waters around the Scarborough Shoal since then. The shoal is another outcrop in the South China Sea that Beijing seized in 2012 after a stand-off with the Philippine Navy.