Manila apologises to China over South China Sea incident

MANILA - The Philippine Navy has apologised to China after one of its warships accidentally rammed a small Chinese fishing boat in disputed waters in the South China Sea, a defence department spokesman said on Wednesday.

An apology was sent to China's embassy in Manila to avoid creating tension in the area, Zosimo Paredes told reporters, saying there were no damage or casualties in the incident.

But the Chinese vessel, he said, had been poaching in Philippine waters.

"The minor incident was unfortunate, that was a result of unforeseen circumstances," Paredes said. Paredes said a navy patrol boat, BRP Rizal, was on patrol in the Reed Bank on Tuesday when it spotted a Chinese fishing vessel towing 35 smaller, unoccupied boats.

The navy boat had steering problems when it went to challenge the main fishing boat, Paredes said, and became entangled with one of the smaller boats under tow. No one was injured.

"There was no intention to ram them. They were poaching in our exclusive economic zone," Paredes said.

The main fishing boat cut the cables to the smaller empty boats, leaving 24 behind, and sailed away, said Navy spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Omar Tonsay.

There was no mention of the incident in China.

Claimants to the sea have been trying to cool tensions after a series of disputes earlier this year, including when Chinese patrol boats threatened to ram a Philippine-contracted survey ship in the Reed Bank in March.

China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian states, including the Philippines, have conflicting claims over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, an area believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.

It is also a rich fishing ground.

Last week, China and Vietnam signed an agreement seeking to contain their long-running spat over the seas.

China, which says it has indisputable sovereignty over the seas and islands within, has rejected international arbitration of the conflicting claims, and has proposed joint development of resources.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino told Reuters his government would want to resolve the sovereignty issue first before any joint development can be done.

During a visit to China in August and September, Aquino sought to cast aside tension over the dispute and said he wanted to deepen trade and investment ties.