World Bulletin / News Desk
A group of Filipino fishermen have accused China's coast guard of shooting at their vessel in disputed South China Sea waters, Philippine authorities said Friday.
There were no casualties during the incident, authorities added.
"(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 armed speedboat approached the Filipino vessel after it dropped anchor about 3.7 kilometres (two nautical miles) off the Chinese side of the Union Banks atoll, it said.
"The crew hid and eventually cut their anchor line and fled the area," the statement added.
Representatives at the Chinese embassy in Manila could not be reached for comment Friday.
If confirmed the incident would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two countries, which have seen warming relations since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in mid-2016.
Both the Philippine coast guard and military are investigating the incident.
"(The Union Banks) is located inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone," military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said.
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 kilometres off their coasts.
But China claims most of the South China Sea and in recent years has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands that can house military facilities.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the Spratlys either wholly or in part.
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 in the strategically vital waters.
Since then, Duterte said China has allowed Filipinos to fish in waters around the Scarborough Shoal, another outcrop in the South China Sea that Beijing seized in 2012 after a stand-off with the Philippine Navy.
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Duterte, who has faced international condemnation for his own crackdown on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives, also insisted that outsiders should not interfere in Southeast Asia's affairs.
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Comparisons with the characters of a popular Chinese television drama called "In the Name of the People" -- which also happens to be the slogan of French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen -- have flooded China's Twitter-like Weibo.
Diplomats in Manila said the other parties apparently refer to the United States and regional powers China, Japan and South Korea -- all key strategic players in the region.
Human Rights Watch said the incident was another sign of widespread rights abuse under Duterte's war on drugs, which has seen thousands of drug suspects killed either by policemen or mysterious vigilantes.
US-led NATO troops have been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, after the ousting of the Taliban regime for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
The two countries have been in a security alliance since the 1950-53 Korean war, and more than 28,000 US troops are stationed in the South.