BEIJING/MANILA (Reuters) - China said on Saturday its coast guard had not attempted to block a move by the Philippines to airdrop supplies to a shoal claimed by both countries in what it called a "special arrangement" in the continuing standoff.
The Philippines rejected that characterisation, saying it had a right to run resupply missions to a grounded ship in the South China Sea that has been the site of a series of escalating confrontations.
China's coast guard said on Saturday that an aircraft from the Philippines had airdropped supplies to troops on a grounded World Two-era vessel on the Second Thomas Shoal on Jan. 21.
The Philippines had not previously announced that airdrop to the handful of marines stationed on the shoal and in statements this week did not confirm it had happened.
In a Jan. 28 story, Reuters stated in the headline and the text that China had allowed the airdrop through an unspecified "special arrangement" but did not reflect the Philippine government's denial of such an arrangement. That story was withdrawn.
Last month, Manila accused vessels from the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels of firing water cannons and ramming its resupply boats headed to the shoal in what it called a "serious escalation." At the time, the Chinese foreign ministry said China's moves were "professional, reasonable and legal", and the Philippine vessels had ignored the Chinese coastguard's warnings and "insisted on rushing into" waters near the shoal.
In its statement on Saturday, China said it had made "temporary, special arrangements" to allow the delivery of supplies by air to the ageing Philippines navy ship, the Sierra Madre. The Philippines deliberately grounded the ship on the shoal in 1999 to assert its sovereignty claim on the atoll.
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, a claim that cuts into the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
The grounded Philippines transport ship at the shoal is about 190 km (118 miles) off the Philippine island of Palawan.
"We do not need to get the permission of anyone, including the Chinese coast guard, if we bring supplies through whatever means, whether its through ship or by air," National Security Council spokesperson Jonathan Malaya told state-run broadcaster PTV-4 on Monday.
"We don't need to ask permission from any country," he said, without confirming or denying the airdrop reported by China.
In previous years, the Philippines had airdropped food and water to troops on the shoal after supply ships were blocked by Chinese vessels.
Malaya said there was "no truth" to any special arrangement for an airdrop, which he called "a figment of the imagination of the Chinese coast guard."
A Philippines navy spokesperson, Roy Vincent Trinidad, reiterated that position on Tuesday, saying that providing support by air or ship is "our constitutional mandate."
In its statement, the Chinese coast guard said it would continue to defend China's rights and interests at the Second Thomas Shoal and its adjacent waters.
China has pressed the Philippines to tow away the ship based on what it said was an earlier pledge by Manila. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has denied such a promise.
Philippines officials have said they fear Beijing could take the shoal and militarise it as China did with the Mischief Reef, which lies just 25 miles from the shoal.
Relations between the Philippines and China have been strained under Marcos, who has accused China of aggressive behaviour while Manila has been seeking closer ties with the United States.
(Reporting by Beijing and Shanghai Newsroom; Editing by Barbara Lewis, Kevin Krolicki and Neil Fullick)