China ships still at disputed shoal, fishermen back: Manila

Chinese coastguard ships are still patrolling the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea but are not stopping Filipinos from fishing there, a Philippine defence spokesman said Sunday.

The information -- from fishermen who have just returned from the shoal -- came despite earlier Philippine government statements that the Chinese had left the outcrop they seized in 2012.

A spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte had said Saturday there were no longer signs of Chinese ships at the shoal, after Duterte visited China to repair frayed ties.

However Defence Department spokesman Arsenio Andolong said the fishermen who visited the shoal on Saturday still saw Chinese coastguard ships there.

"Filipino fishermen, who have been to Bajo de Masinloc, (the local name for Scarborough Shoal) say that they have observed an undetermined number of Chinese white ships in the area but (the Filipinos) were not subjected to any harassment by these vessels and they were able to fish in peace," he said in a statement on Sunday.

China took control of Scarborough Shoal, 230 kilometres (140 miles) west of the main Philippine island of Luzon, in 2012. It drove Filipino fishermen away from the rich fishing ground, sometimes using water cannons.

In a case brought by then-president Benigno Aquino, the Philippines won a resounding victory over China at an international tribunal earlier this year.

In a judgement that infuriated Beijing, the tribunal ruled in July there was no basis for China's claims to most of the South China Sea -- where several nations have competing partial claims.

However Aquino's successor Duterte played down this victory in a visit to China earlier this month, putting territorial disputes on the back-burner and focusing instead on Chinese aid.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told Duterte there was no reason for hostility and difficult topics "could be shelved temporarily".

The Chinese occupation of the shoal has been a sore point in relations, with Filipino fishermen frequently complaining that Chinese ships drive them away from their fishing grounds.

Duterte had hinted at the possibility of a Chinese withdrawal upon his return from Beijing, saying: "We'll just wait for a few more days. We might be able to return to Scarborough Shoal."

Newspaper reports on Sunday also said fishermen from the northern province of Pangasinan were able to fish at Scarborough Shoal, with the Chinese watching but not interfering.

"Happy days are here again," the Philippine Star quoted one fisherman as saying.