MANILA, Philippines — China has claimed new territory less than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from a Philippine province after Manila invited foreign investors to explore for oil and gas in the area, but the Philippines has dismissed the claim, an official said Monday.
Philippine Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug Jr. told The Associated Press that China protested the exploration plan in July. It is the closest point in waters off the main Philippine islands that China has claimed in increasingly tense South China Sea territorial disputes.
Beijing’s action will likely bolster Philippine resolve to seek a U.N. ruling on the long-simmering disputes, which involve China, the Philippines and four other claimants.
Among the areas being contested is the Spratlys, a chain of up to 190 islands, reefs, coral outcrops and banks believed to be sitting atop large deposits of oil and natural gas, which many fear could be Asia’s next flash point for conflict.
The issue is expected to be discussed Wednesday with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The two new areas being claimed by China are not part of the Spratlys, Layug said.
The Chinese Embassy delivered a protest to the Philippine government on July 4 after Manila invited foreign companies to bid for the right to explore for oil and gas in 15 areas. Chinese officials opposed the inclusion of “areas 3 and 4” northwest of Palawan province, claiming they fall under China’s “indisputable sovereignty,” according to a Philippine government report seen by the AP.
Palawan province, about 510 miles (820 kilometers) southwest of Manila, faces the South China Sea, which is claimed entirely by China.
China asked the Philippines to cancel oil exploration in the two areas, the nearest of which is just 49 miles (79 kilometers) northwest of Palawan.
Layug said the Philippine government told China the areas are located well within Philippine waters.
“The areas that we’re offering for bidding are all within Philippine territory, Layug said. “There is no doubt about that.”
The two areas are more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) from the nearest Chinese coast, Layug said.
About 50 foreign investors, including some of the world’s largest oil companies, have expressed interest in exploring for oil and gas in the Philippines, half of them in the new areas being claimed by China, because of strong indications of oil there, he said.
None of the prospective foreign companies has expressed concern over the territorial disputes, he said.
“Of course their issue would be ensuring security and the support of the Philippine government when they are awarded the contract,” he said.
In March, two Chinese vessels tried to drive away a Philippine oil exploration ship from Reed Bank, another area west of Palawan. Two Philippine air force planes were deployed but the Chinese vessels had disappeared by the time they reached the submerged bank.
The Philippines protested the incident, which it said was one of several intrusions by China into its territorial waters in the first half of the year. Vietnam has also accused Chinese vessels of trying to sabotage oil exploration in its territorial waters this year, sparking rare anti-China protests in Vietnam.
A British company behind the exploration at Reed Bank found very strong indications of natural gas and plans to start drilling in about six months, Layug said.
President Benigno Aquino III plans to discuss a Philippine proposal at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit this week in Bali, Indonesia, to segregate disputed South China Sea areas so coastal states can freely make use of non-disputed areas. China has opposed the plan.
Aquino’s government also plans to bring the territorial disputes before the United Nations for possible arbitration.
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