How a Philippine coastguard ship ended up being surrounded by 12 Chinese vessels

It was a rare window into confrontations most have viewed from afar. We were invited on board the Philippine Coastguard Vessel BRP Bagacay.

They were on a resupply mission to Scarborough Shoal (referred to as Huangyan Dao by the Chinese), a submerged reef which China claims as its own but is within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone.

They were meant to be dropping off food and fuel to fishermen who rely on the lives beneath these waters. But they knew, as did we, that this journey was about far more.

It felt as if they wanted to show the world they were willing to stand up to Beijing if Chinese ships tried to block their path.

Our trip comes off the back of a trilateral summit with Japan and America, where no doubt there were discussions on how to handle China's expanding interests and increasing manoeuvres in the South China Sea.

We got on the ship on Monday afternoon. By dawn the following day, the tension was already apparent.

Two ships were already trailing behind our vessel - more than three hours away from Scarborough Shoal.

There has long been a game of brinkmanship in this waterway - where about one-third of the world's shipping passes through. But this felt more choreographed and intense than it has for some time.

Soon, the captain told us 12 ships were encircling our vessel.

They swerved in front of the Philippine crew, who exchanged warnings over the radio.

On the deck, the crew rushed towards buoys every time the Chinese edged closer - trying to protect themselves in case there was a collision. We could see the Chinese crew taking pictures - just metres away from us.

Then suddenly, a volley of water was fired at the boat. The force of it seemed to take even the experienced crew on board by surprise.

We were on the stern of the vessel and got soaked. As we were ushered inside, the roof of part of the deck that some of us had spent the previous night sleeping on was ripped apart. Despite the damage, the water cannons continued to fire.

Within hours the Chinese coastguard was trying to get the first word out to the world about the incident.

They say the Philippine vessel we were on has been "expelled".

The team on board the Philippine vessel tell us they're turning back because the other ship they were travelling alongside has had its radar damaged by the water cannons.

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There is arguably one silent player in this fraught moment - America.

The US has recently deepened its military and diplomatic ties with the Philippines. It's described China's actions as "coercive and unlawful".

It has also made clear that due to a joint defence treaty, it will take action if Beijing conducts a military attack.

That's raised the temperature of this tussle and the spectre of a superpower showdown.

No one wants that yet, but the chances of a dangerous misstep now look far higher.

Sky News approached the Chinese embassy in London for comment.

In reply, it referred to remarks by a spokesperson for the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs who said: "Huangyan Dao has always been China's territory.

"The Philippine coastguard vessel and official vessel entered waters of Huangyan Dao without Chinese permission, which seriously infringed on China's sovereignty.

"The China coastguard took necessary measures in accordance with the law, and the way it handled the situation was professional, proper and lawful. China urges the Philippines to stop making infringement and provocations at once and not to challenge China's resolve to defend our sovereignty."