MANILA • China has assured the Philippines it will not occupy new features or territory in the South China Sea, under a new status quo brokered by Manila as both sides try to strengthen their relations, the Philippine defence minister said.
The minister, Mr Delfin Lorenzana, told a congressional hearing that the Philippines and China had reached a "modus vivendi", or a way to get along, in the South China Sea that prohibits new occupation of islands.
"There is status quo now that is happening in the South China Sea, brokered by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs," he told lawmakers late on Monday.
"According to him, the Chinese will not occupy new features in the South China Sea nor are they going to build structures in Scarborough Shoal," he said, referring to a prime fishing ground close to the Philippines that China blockaded from 2012 to last year. "It would be a very serious thing if China occupies any of the islands."
Mr Lorenzana did not comment when lawmakers, citing reports from the military, told him five Chinese ships had showed up 5km off the Philippine-held Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelago on Saturday.
Congressman Gary Alejano told Reuters that Chinese fishing boats had blocked a Philippine marine surveillance ship in the area two days ago. Thitu Island is the largest of nine reefs and shoals the Philippines occupies in the Spratlys.
The military's public affairs chief, Colonel Edgard Arevalo, declined to comment until the armed forces had the "whole picture of the current situation".
China has built seven islands upon reefs in disputed areas, three of which, experts say, are capable of accommodating fighter jets.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has berated traditional ally the United States over several issues since he took office over a year ago, while courting China for its business and investment, and avoiding rows over maritime sovereignty that dogged his predecessors.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a waterway through which about US$3 trillion (S$4.1 trillion) worth of sea-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims in the area.
China has built seven islands upon reefs in disputed areas, three of which, experts say, are capable of accommodating fighter jets. They have runways, radars and surface-to-air missiles which China says are for defence.