By Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - 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 defense minister said.
The minister, 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 they are 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 2016.
"It would be a very serious thing if China will occupy any of the islands."
Lorenzana did not comment when lawmakers, citing reports from the military, told him five Chinese ships had showed up almost 5 km 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 on the current situation".
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has berated traditional ally the United States over several issues since he took office just over a year ago, while courting China for its business and investment and avoiding the rows over maritime sovereignty that dogged his predecessors.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a waterway through which about $3 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 defense.
One of the manmade islands is Subi Reef, visible some 24 km away by the small community of Filipinos who since the 1970s have lived on Thitu.
Alejano, a former Marine Corps officer who led a failed coup against the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2003, urged the government to lodge a diplomatic protest and tell China to leave Philippine territory in the Spratlys.
(Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel)