Mr. Lorenzana said that Beijing had invoked an agreement between the Chinese and Philippine foreign ministers to maintain the status quo, and not to occupy any new land features, in an effort to reduce tensions in the area. He said that Mr. Duterte had been informed of the “standoff” and had decided to halt construction on the sandbar.
“I agree with the decision because it was indeed a new feature,” Mr. Lorenzana said.
China claims ownership of a vast majority of the South China Sea, asserting rights even to waters near the shores of other nations.
A third of global maritime traffic passes through the South China Sea, making the disputes a source of contention, with defense strategists and analysts warning that competing ownership claims could lead to armed conflict.
The Philippines has contested many of China’s claims, but since assuming office last year, Mr. Duterte has taken a more conciliatory stance. The president, who holds the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hopes to begin negotiations this year for a code of conduct that would govern actions in the region. Mr. Duterte will host Asean leaders in Manila next week.
But some Philippine lawmakers oppose what they see as Mr. Duterte’s acquiescence to China.
Representative Gary Alejano, a former marine captain who had warned of China’s increasing presence near Thitu, accused Mr. Duterte of buckling to Beijing, saying the Philippines could rightfully to set up structures on the sandbar.
“There was no new occupation of the sandbars by the Philippines because these sandbars have been traditionally under effective control by Philippine troops,” he said.
Mr. Alejano noted that the sandbars in question, about 2.5 miles from Pag-Asa, were subject to regular patrols and visits by Philippine forces and fishermen.
“That is part of Duterte’s strategy of silence, inaction and subservience to China’s actions in the South China Sea,” he said.
Harry Roque, a spokesman for Mr. Duterte, said in an interview on Tuesday that the president had relied “on the principle of good faith” in dealing with China’s expansionist ambitions in the region, and he described relations between the two countries as “very warm.”
“I think we are witnessing a renaissance of sorts as far as China and Philippine relations are concerned, and this bodes well for peaceful resolution of the varying claims” in the South China Sea, Mr. Roque said.
He added that Mr. Duterte had opted to maintain “very close and cordial” relations with China, noting that his state visit to Beijing last year had resulted in pledges of Chinese investment in the Philippines.
But he warned that the government had also made “contingency plans” in case relations hit a sour note again.
“We will rely on peaceful means of settling disputes — recognizing that we also have the right to self-defense,” Mr. Roque said.
In a speech on Wednesday, Mr. Duterte highlighted his country’s warmer relations with Beijing.
“We are friends of China, we owe them a debt of gratitude,” he said, noting that the Chinese government had helped the Philippines by supplying arms to fight militants in Marawi, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.