BEIJING (AP) — China's Foreign Ministry on Monday confirmed a decision to allow Philippine fishermen access to a disputed shoal following a visit to Beijing by the Philippine president.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing made "proper arrangements" regarding Scarborough Shoal after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expressed concern about the matter.
China seized the shoal, located 228 kilometers (123 nautical miles) from the northern Philippines, following a 2012 standoff between the sides, preventing Filipino fishermen from working in the area. Chinese coast guard ships sometimes used water cannons to drive off Filipino fishermen while protecting Chinese boats.
However, fishermen said over the weekend that the Chinese coast guard had allowed them to again fish in the area following Duterte's recent visit, which officials say resulted in a warming of bilateral ties.
The visit marked a "comprehensive improvement of China-Philippines relations. Given the circumstance, regarding the issue President Duterte was highly concerned about, China made proper arrangements on the issue based on the friendship between China and the Philippines," Hua told reporters at a daily briefing.
Hua made it clear that China would continue to exercise administration over the area as Chinese territory.
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Sunday that a navy plane had spotted at least four Chinese coast guard ships around the shoal during a surveillance flight on Saturday.
Duterte's national security adviser, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., said there was no agreement between China and the Philippines on the return of Filipino fishermen to Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine government, he said, would continue to assert its claim over the traditional fishing area.
"There was no expressed agreement but it seems like the traditional rights of our fishermen are being respected," Esperon told reporters in Manila. "But the president reiterated that we won in the court, the other leader also reiterated that is historically their territory."
"Now that there's no resolution, why allow yourselves to be in that confrontational position when you can talk about economic relations, trade relations?" Esperon said, adding that the Philippines would continue to press its claim.
"Maybe not now but when we go to another round of talks, we will again assert it," Esperon said.
Farther south, in the Spratly Islands, China has in recent years constructed islands by piling sand and concrete atop coral reefs, despite protests from other claimants and the United States.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.