MANILA, Philippines-- Philippine authorities will determine through "a legal process" whether to return to China several small fishing boats seized near the disputed Spratly Islands, an official said Tuesday.
China has asked the Philippines to return the dinghies, which the Philippine navy seized last week from the Reed Bank in the South China Sea. China and the Philippines dispute ownership of the potentially gas-rich bank.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said a Philippine government interagency committee dealing with illegal entry would decide what to do with the boats through "a legal process." It is unclear when a decision will be reached, he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu has said that China has "indisputable sovereignty" over the contested region and that the Philippine navy's action infringed on the rights of the fishermen who were towing the small boats.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said last week that a Chinese fishing vessel towing 35 unmanned dinghies strayed into the country's territorial waters.
A Philippine navy ship approached but developed a steering problem, causing it to accidentally ram onto some of the dinghies, del Rosario said. The main Chinese vessel then moved away, leaving behind 24 of the dinghies, he said.
"No apologies were necessary and none was given," he said. Philippine defense department spokesman Zosimo Paredes, however, has said that the local navy has apologized to the Chinese Embassy over the incident.
While being towed to the western Philippine province of Palawan, 16 of the dinghies sank in the rough seas, military officials said.
China, the Philippines and four other nations dispute ownership of the Spratlys. The Philippines, however, says the Reed Bank is well within its territorial waters and is not a part of the Spratlys -- a claim that Beijing contests.