China's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday (November 22) declined to say if it supported an executive order by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declaring part of the disputed Scarborough Shoal a marine sanctuary off-limits to all fishermen.
Duterte's office said the move was supported by Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
Duterte will make a unilateral declaration barring fishermen from exploiting marine life at a tranquil lagoon that was central to years of bitter squabbling, and the basis of an arbitration case brought and won by the Philippines.
Asked about the announcement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had made "appropriate arrangements" to allow Philippine fishermen to operate around the shoal.
"In the spirit of friendship, the Chinese side has made appropriate arrangements for Philippine fishermen in the Huangyan Island (the Scarborough Shoal) and its relevant maritime territories. China's sovereignty and jurisdiction of Huangyan Island has not and will not change. We hope China and the Philippines can continue to strengthen dialogue and cooperation, and make the South China Sea issue a positive factor in promoting friendship and cooperation," he said, using the Chinese name "Huangyan Island" for the shoal.
Xi and Duterte met on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Peruvian capital Lima on Saturday (November 19) and pledged to maintain the momentum of improving relations, Geng added, but made no mention of Duterte's marine sanctuary move.
The dispute over the Scarborough Shoal is one of several involving South East Asian countries seeking to counter China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Since 2012, China has deployed its coastguard to block the shoal from Filipinos, despite being located inside the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
The establishment of a protected marine zone, if successful, could provide both countries a face-saving way to break the diplomatic deadlock without making a political agreement or formal concessions.
Under the plan announced by the president's office on Monday (November 21), fishermen of both countries can cast nets on the fringes of the lagoon, but not inside it, allowing fish stocks to be replenished.
The move is the latest gesture towards China in what has been an astonishing reversal of Philippine foreign policy under Duterte, who opted to befriend Beijing while admonishing longtime ally the United States for what he calls hypocrisy and bullying.
China has softened its stance since Duterte returned from a high-profile trip to Beijing in October. Filipino fishermen who went close to the shoal said China's coastguard was no longer repelling them, as it had done over the past four years