The Philippine defense chief says aerial surveillance shows Chinese coast guard ships are still guarding a disputed shoal but Filipinos were seen fishing there "unmolested" for the first time in years.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Sunday the return of Filipino fishermen to Scarborough Shoal was "a most welcome development."

Lorenzana tells The Associated Press a navy plane spotted four Chinese coast guard ships, contradicting an initial report that the Chinese have left.

Chinese ships had driven away Filipino fishermen since they took control of the shoal in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels.

China granted access to the shoal after President Rodrigo Duterte reached out to Beijing, meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders this month.