BEIJING - China on Wednesday defended the actions of its vessels in the disputed South China Sea after the Philippines accused China's coast guard of using water cannon on Philippine fishing boats and urged Manila to increase its "education" of its fishermen.
Filipino fishermen said that China's coast guard boarded their fishing boats and threw away fish catch and fishing gear last week after spraying them with water in a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
The presidential palace in Manila said China's coast guard used water cannon on Monday to drive away a group of Filipino fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, damaging some of their wooden boats. Chinese ships rammed a fishing boat in the area a few months ago.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei did not directly confirm whether water cannon was used. He said that "official Chinese vessels in waters near the Huangyan island carried out their duties and managed the relevant waters according to law", using the Chinese name for Scarborough Shoal.
"Recently, many Philippine fishing boats disobeyed China's administration and gathered illegally in Huangyan Island waters, violating China's sovereignty and maritime rights and interests," Hong said.
"We demand that the Philippine side increase its education and control of its fishermen, and cease all behavior that violates China's sovereignty and rights and interests."
Philippine and U.S. Marines took part in their biggest combined military exercise in 15 years this week, a demonstration of Washington's commitment to its longtime ally as it rebalances to Asia.
China claims most of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, with overlapping claims from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, and denies charges its actions in what it says is its own territory are provocative.
Gilbert Baoya, a 58-year-old fisherman from Pangasinan province in the Philippines, told Reuters that armed men from China's coast guard cut his boat's ropes, which were tied to the shoal.
"We were terrified," he said. "We couldn't do anything."
China's coast guard used bull horns to drive the fishermen away, telling them to stop fishing, said Efren Montehermido, a 20-year-old fisherman who showed Reuters a mobile phone video of the water cannon incident on April 13.
Montehermido said fishermen like him had to sneak into the shoal at night and leave in the morning.
"We are like thieves in our own homes," he said.