China has claimed new territory less than 80km 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 yesterday.
Philippine Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug Jr said 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 UN ruling on the long-simmering disputes, which involve China, Philippines and four other claimants.
Among the areas being contested is the Spratlys, which are called the Nansha (南沙) Islands in Taiwan and China, 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 tomorrow with visiting US 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 three and four” northwest of Palawan province, claiming they fall under China’s “indisputable sovereignty,” according to a Philippine government report.
Palawan province, about 820km 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 79 km northwest of Palawan.
Layug said the Philippine government told China the areas were 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 800km 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.
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.
A British company behind the exploration at Reed Bank found very strong indications of natural gas and planned to start drilling in about six months, Layug said.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III plans to discuss a Philippine proposal at an ASEAN 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 UN for possible arbitration.
Aquino will stress that peacefully solving overlapping claims in the South China Sea is a “paramount concern” for Manila as well as for the region, according to an internal foreign department document.
ASEAN and China adopted a non-binding code of conduct in 2002 to discourage hostile acts in the South China Sea. The Philippines wants the code to be strengthened with binding rules.
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