Updated 18:11 PM PHT Wed, March 15, 2017
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — China is honoring the Philippines' sovereign rights over Benham Rise, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday.
"I wish to reiterate that China fully respects the Philippines' rights over the continental shelf in the Benham Rise and there is no such thing of China challenging those rights," spokesperson Hua Chunying was quoted as saying on the ministry's official website.
The Philippines raised concerns over the sighting of Chinese survey ships in Benham Rise, an underwater plateau 217 kilometers east of Aurora province.
The United Nations ruled the Philippines had sovereign rights over the area in 2012, granting Filipinos the sole right to make use of resources there.
The plateau is in an area identified as the "continental shelf," which does not technically fall within Philippine territory.
Hua raised this technicality to defend China's presence in the area. China claimed they were only exercising "innocent passage" in the area.
"But the basic principle of international law says that the (exclusive economic zone) and the continental shelf do not equate with territories," said Hua.
"A littoral state's exercise of rights over the continental shelf should not hamper such rights as freedom of navigation enjoyed by other countries under international law."
However, some Filipino officials doubt this, as the ships were reported to have lingered for three months in the area.
Under President Rodrigo Duterte's term, government has exercised a friendlier approach to China, with whom the Philippines had tension over disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea.
Hua maintains that this is still the case.
"From China's point of view, we attach great importance to the good neighborly and friendly partnership with the Philippines," Hua said.
She added they would continue to "deepen friendly cooperation" and "strive for the continued, sound and steady development of bilateral relations."