Philippines says Chinese coast guard elevating tensions in South China Sea

FILE PHOTO: Chinese Coast Guard vessels fire water cannons towards a Philippine resupply vessel Unaizah May 4 on its way to a resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea

MANILA (Reuters) -The Philippines on Wednesday accused China's coast guard of elevating tensions in the South China Sea after two vessels suffered damage from water cannon use by Beijing, an official said.

Philippine officials have said a coast guard ship and a fisheries vessel were damaged when Chinese coast guard vessels fired water cannons at them while on their way to the disputed Scarborough shoal on Tuesday to help Filipino fishermen at sea.

Commodore Jay Tarriela, Philippine coast guard spokesperson on South China Sea matters, said their Chinese counterparts have elevated tensions after it directly used water cannon against one of its vessels for the first time.

"It just goes to show that Goliath is becoming more Goliath. They don't hesitate to use brute force to violate international law," Tarriela told a briefing.

China has previously used water cannons against Philippine navy-crewed civilian supply vessels in the region.

No country has sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing patch close to major shipping lanes that is used by several countries. The shoal falls inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and has been a constant source of flashpoint between it and China.

Tarriela added China's actions do not count as an armed attack against a Philippine vessel, but he said China has been raising the pressure of its water cannons which have damaged their ships.

The Philippines has a longstanding mutual defence treaty with the United States and Washington has pledged its "ironclad commitment" to defending its ally against an armed attack on Filipino military and public vessels, including coast guard ships, anywhere in the South China Sea.

A spokesperson at China's embassy in Manila said Scarborough shoal, which it calls Huangyan Dao, "has always been China's territory" and urged the Philippines to "stop making infringement and provocations at once and not to challenge China’s resolve to defend our sovereignty".

China claims sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion of annual ship-borne commerce, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

An international tribunal in 2016 said China's expansive claim had no legal basis, a decision Beijing has rejected.

(Reporting by Mikhail Flores; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Lincoln Feast.)