Manila (AFP) - The Philippines lodged a strong protest against China Tuesday over allegations by Filipino fishermen that the Chinese coastguard had attacked them with water cannon near a disputed shoal.
The foreign department summoned the Chinese charge d'affaires to receive the formal protest over the January 27 incident at the Scarborough Shoal, said department spokesman Raul Hernandez.
"The department... strongly protest(s) the efforts of China to prohibit Filipino fishermen from undertaking fishing activities in the Philippines' Bajo de Masinloc," Hernandez said, referring to the South China Sea shoal by its Filipino name.
"Bajo de Masinloc is an integral part of the Philippines and over which the Philippines exercises sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction."
The rocky outcrop, considered a traditional fishing ground by Filipinos, lies just 220 kilometres (135 miles) off the main Philippine island of Luzon.
Hernandez said one of three Chinese coastguard vessels in the area fired water cannon at two Filipino fishing vessels which were about 30-40 yards from the shoal, causing no injuries but forcing the Filipino vessels to leave the area.
"The Chinese vessel continuously blew its horn and thereafter doused the fishing vessels with water cannon for several minutes," Hernandez said.
About 14 Filipino boats were fishing in the area at the time, and have since safely returned to port in the Philippines, he added.
- 'Respect our sovereignty' -
"The department also received information about nine similar reports of similar harassment incidents of Filipino fishermen" by Chinese vessels since last year, he said.
In these instances, "even during inclement weather conditions Philippine fishing vessels were driven away from the area".
Scarborough is about 650 kilometres from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass. But Beijing claims most of the South China Sea including waters and outcrops near the shores of its neighbours.
China and the Philippines engaged in a tense standoff in the area in April 2012, which ended with the Philippines retreating from the shoal.
The South China Sea is home to vital shipping lanes and believed to sit atop lucrative mineral deposits.
Hernandez said Filipino fishermen had "every right to pursue their livelihood in Bajo de Masinloc", and urged China to "respect our sovereignty".
He declined to say what steps were being taken to protect the fishermen's rights.
The foreign department's statement came shortly after President Benigno Aquino acknowledged that security officials were not sure whether using water cannon on Filipino fishermen was a standard operating procedure by the Chinese.
"We do not want to react to a one-off incident," Aquino told reporters.
He said that on Monday, "we had fishermen inside the shoal who were not being harassed or intimidated by any entity."
China on Monday refused to directly respond to the allegations, insisting only that it had "indisputable sovereignty" over the area.
The Philippines, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, also have claims to parts of the South China Sea, and the rivalries have been a source of tension for decades.
Last year Manila asked a United Nations arbitration tribunal to rule on the validity of China's claim to most of the sea, but Beijing has rejected the process.