BEIJING/MANILA - The Philippines on Tuesday accused China's coast guard of harassment and damaging one of its boats in a disputed area of the South China Sea, and rejected Beijing's position that it had expelled two vessels from the hotly contested shoal.

The Philippine coast guard said its two vessels stood their ground at the Scarborough Shoal a key battleground in the South China Sea, but one sustained damage from use of water cannon by two Chinese coast guard ships.

"This damage serves as evidence of the forceful water pressure used by the China coast guard in their harassment of the Philippine vessels," Philippine coast guard spokesperson Jay Tarriela said in a statement.

"They were not deterred and will persist in carrying out their legitimate operations to support Filipino fishermen and ensure their safety."

No country has sovereignty over the strategically located Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing patch used by several countries that is close to major shipping lanes. The shoal falls inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

China has occupied the atoll for more than a decade and waters around its lagoon, which has long been a sanctuary for vessels during storms, have been the site of multiple confrontations in recent years.

China's coast guard said the vessels had been expelled but did not provide details of the incident.

"China urges the Philippine side to immediately stop its provocative acts of infringement and do not challenge China's firm determination to safeguard its sovereignty," said Lin Jian, spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, at a regular press briefing.

"China's coast guard took necessary measures in line with the law to firmly expel them."

The Philippine' Tarriela said its vessel, the BRP Bagacay, suffered damage to its railing and canopy and China has installed a floating barrier at the shoal's entrance, "effectively restricting access to the area".

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire 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.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 said China's expansive claim had no legal basis, a decision Beijing has rejected.

China and the Philippines have traded accusations of illegal conduct at the Scarborough Shoal and Manila recently summoned a Chinese diplomat to explain what it calls aggressive manoeuvres. China typically accuses the Philippines of encroaching on its territory.

China and Philippines previously said they would seek better communications and management around skirmishes in the vast South China Sea, but tensions have increased recently, as the Philippines forges stronger diplomatic and military ties with the ally the United States.