MANILA - Beijing on Tuesday said it was allowing Filipinos to fish in Panatag shoal in the West Philippine Sea "out of goodwill."
China's foreign ministry made the statement on Monday after a GMA 7 television report last week showed a cellphone video of Chinese coast guard seizing the catch of fishermen passing by Panatag shoal, located only 124 nautical miles off Zambales province.
"China has made appropriate arrangement for the Philippine fishermen to fish in relevant waters out of goodwill. This policy remains unchanged," Beijing's foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said in a press briefing.
"At this point, the China-Philippines friendly relations have taken on a positive trend, and China has a clear and firm determination to commit itself to consolidating and strengthening China-Philippines relations," he added.
A UN-backed court in 2016 has invalidated China's sweeping historic claims to the resource-rich sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually. But China's actions show it still has firm control over the area.
China said their naval presence was only to "safeguard" peace in the waterway.
"The Chinese coast guards have been safeguarding peace, order and tranquility in relevant waters and offered humanitarian aids to Philippine fishermen for many times," Geng said.
China was however "conducting an investigation seriously" into the alleged harassment of Filipino fishermen, he added.
"If what the Philippine side claimed is true, I believe relevant Chinese departments will handle that in a serious manner," Geng said.
China in 2012 seized control of Panatag Shoal, following a 3-month standoff after a Philippine Navy vessel tried to arrest Chinese fishermen found illegally hauling giant clams there.
President Rodrigo Duterte has refused to flaunt the arbitral award, seeking instead investments and aid from Beijing, as he moved away from the US, Manila's longtime ally.
In a rare public rebuke on Monday, Duterte's spokesperson Harry Roque asked China to stop its coast guard from getting the catch of Filipinos.
"That is unacceptable. That is why we informed the Chinese we will not allow fish to be taken from our countrymen," he said.
The Duterte administration rejects criticism that its response to Chinese activities in the hotly contested waters has been weak.
China in May reportedly deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on the Spratly Islands and flew nuclear-capable bombers to a base in another disputed part of the sea.
Duterte's aides have said previously the Philippines is taking "all diplomatic action" to protect its claims while insisting it would not anger China by engaging in "megaphone diplomacy."
On Monday, Roque refused to describe the latest incident as harassment, adding the Chinese Coast Guard gave the Filipino fishermen noodles, cigarettes and water in exchange for their catch.
The fishermen, who appeared with Roque in the news briefing, said they were powerless to stop repeated seizures by the Chinese.
"The (Chinese coast guard personnel) board our boats, look at where we store the fish and take the best ones. We cannot do anything because their huge vessels are there," said Romel Cejuela, one of the fishermen.
With a report from Agence France-Presse