MANILA, Philippines -- China has acknowledged its fishing vessel hit a Filipino boat in the disputed South China Sea in an incident that prompted an outcry in the Philippines but denies the collision was intentional.
The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest after Filipino fishermen said a Chinese vessel rammed their anchored boat on Sunday night then abandoned them as the boat sank in the Reed Bank. Philippine officials strongly condemned the reported Chinese action.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila said late Friday that the Chinese vessel accidentally hit the Filipino boat as it tried to maneuver while being "besieged" by several Filipino boats. It said the Chinese captain tried to rescue the Filipinos but was afraid of being besieged by other boats.
"There is no such thing as 'hit-and-run,'" the Chinese Embassy said in a statement, citing the result of a preliminary investigation.
It's the most serious incident so far in the disputed waters involving fishermen from the two Asian neighbors whose ties have flourished under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in 2016.
The territorial conflicts, which also involve Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, have long been feared as a potential flashpoint in Asia. Tensions escalated in recent years after China transformed seven disputed reefs into man-made islands, which can serve as forward military outposts and intimidate rival claimants in the strategic waterway. The U.S. has accused China of militarizing the region and has carried out "freedom of navigation" patrols to challenge Beijing's sweeping claims.
Duterte has come under criticism for his silence on the incident although his spokesman, Salvador Panelo, described the abandonment of the 22 Filipino fishermen after their boat sank as "uncivilized as it is outrageous."
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said the Chinese government's explanation was "a flimsy attempt at a cover-up to shield the involved Chinese crew from any accountability and shift the blame and responsibility to our distressed fisherfolk."
If there were seven to eight Filipino fishing boats besieging the Chinese fishing vessel, Hontiveros asked why it was a Vietnamese fishing boat that rescued all the 22 Filipinos, as the Philippine military reported.
Hontiveros renewed her call for Duterte to downgrade diplomatic relations with China by recalling the Philippine ambassador in Beijing to strengthen Manila's effort to seek justice and defend its sovereignty.
Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who has done extensive studies on the South China Sea conflicts, said it was the first time that a Chinese vessel has rammed a Philippine fishing boat in the disputed waters in a "quantum escalation of China's aggressive acts." He said it could be the start of a more aggressive campaign to discourage the Philippine presence in an offshore region believed to be rich in undersea gas and oil deposits.
Chinese vessels have rammed Vietnamese fishing boats in another South China Sea region, the Paracel Islands, for years, Carpio said.
The Filipino fishermen, who were brought back home by the Philippine navy, told reporters the Chinese vessel turned around after hitting them and turned lights on, apparently to check on their sinking boat, then left.
"If the Vietnamese were not there, we would have all died," Filipino boat skipper Junel Insigne told ABS-CBN TV network.