BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Wednesday accused the Philippines of "deliberate provocations" over an incident in disputed waters in the South China Sea that drew a protest from Manila about what it called Chinese ships' use of a water cannon on Filipino fishermen.
The Philippines lodged a protest with China on Tuesday over the issue, saying the Chinese were trying to keep the fishermen from fishing in Philippine waters around the Scarborough Shoal.
China's foreign ministry, which has already rejected the complaint, said its boats had every right to respond to "provocative" acts in its territory.
China suspected the aims and identities of several Philippine fishing boats that recently appeared in the waters around the Scarborough Shoal, as some of them appeared to just "hang around", foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
The Philippine boats ignored calls from the Chinese ships to leave, with some aboard even adopting a "provocative posture of appearing to spoil for a fight" in activities showing "a strong level of organization and confrontation," Hua said.
"In the face of this seriously provocative behavior, China maintained utmost restraint, and as multiple warnings failed, could not but take the minimum measures to carry out expulsions, which caused no harm to the Philippine fishing boats or personnel," she told a daily news briefing.
The Philippines was guilty of seizing Chinese fishing boats in the South China Sea, Hua said.
"This is like a thief crying, 'Stop, thief!'," she added. "The Chinese government will never tolerate these deliberate provocations."
Since the beginning of the year, China has required foreign fishing boats to get approval before entering waters it claims as its own.
On January 27, a Chinese coastguard vessel tried to drive away Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal by using a water cannon, General Emmanuel Bautista, the head of Philippine military said on Monday.
China claims about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-sq-km (1.35-million-sq-mile) waters of the South China Sea. It provides 10 percent of the global fish catch, carries $5 trillion a year in ship-borne trade and has a seabed believed to be rich in energy reserves.
Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam also claim parts of the sea.
The Philippines has urged regional grouping the Association of South East Asian Nations to conclude a binding code of conduct with China to avoid accidents and miscalculations in the disputed waters.
The Philippines has taken its dispute with China to arbitration under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea but China is refusing to participate.
China has rejected challenges to its sovereignty claims and accused the Philippines of illegally occupying Chinese islands in the seas and of provoking tension.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)