MANILA — China on Wednesday said it has "a smooth channel" with the Philippines and that the two sides "maintain close communication" amid tensions over reports of an increased number of Chinese ships in the latter's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
In her regular press briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the two countries are "committed to properly handling the relevant issue through dialogue and consultation."
Asked about Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin’s comments to Bloomberg TV that China has sent more ships to disputed waters in the South China Sea, Hua said: "I haven't read relevant reports."
"But China's position on the South China Sea is very clear, consistent and firm. China and the Philippines have a smooth channel and maintain close communication on the relevant issue," she added.
The Beijing official also downplayed the sea row between the two countries, adding it is only "one percent" of their overall bilateral relationship.
"Our full consensus is that the South China Sea issue account for only 1 percent of the overall bilateral relations. The two sides are committed to properly handling the relevant issue through dialogue and consultation, so as to continue to safeguard and promote the sound and steady growth of bilateral relations."
Filipino fishermen have said they continue to experience harassment from Chinese maritime elements in the West Philippine Sea, the country's EEZ in the larger South China Sea, saying this has been affecting their livelihood for years.
The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) on Wednesday reported in a press statement the presence of 287 Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels “scattered over various features of the Municipality of Kalayaan, both within and outside the EEZ of the Philippines,” based on its latest maritime patrol on May 9.
“Bigger groupings of CMMs were sighted at the artificial islands of China while some were observed near islands occupied by the Philippines,” it said.
China has asserted indisputable sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, ignoring a 2016 arbitral ruling that nullified its 9-dash line claim in a case filed by the Philippines. It has, instead, ramped up militarization and island-building activities.
Duterte has pursued close relations with China despite repeated incursions in Philippine territory in exchange for infrastructure funding, investments, and most recently, COVID-19 vaccine supply.
—Reports from Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News