MANILA, Philippines (AP) — China has claimed new territory less than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from a Philippine province, boosting tensions over potentially resource-rich areas of the South China Sea, but the Philippines has dismissed the claim, an official said Monday.
Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug Jr. told The Associated Press that China protested a Philippine plan to explore for oil and gas in the area in July. It is the closest point in waters off the main Philippine islands that China has claimed in the increasingly tense territorial disputes.
Beijing has been asserting its territorial claims more aggressively as its economic and diplomatic muscle has grown. Its new claims are likely to 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 Chinese sovereign territory.
"The Chinese government urges the Philippine side to immediately withdraw the bidding offer in areas 3 and 4, refrain from any action that infringes on China's sovereignty and sovereign rights," China said in a diplomatic note to Manila, adding that the Philippine action "cannot but complicate the disputes and affect stability in the South China Sea."
China told the Philippine government that the planned oil explorations violated a nonbinding 2002 accord that called on claimants to South China Sea territories to stop occupying new areas and avoid action that could spark tension.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a regular briefing: "We do not want foreign commerce involved in these kinds of investment and disputes over the South China Sea."
Palawan province, about 510 miles (820 kilometers) southwest of Manila, faces the South China Sea, which is claimed entirely by China.
One of the offshore areas now being claimed by Beijing lies just 49 miles (79 kilometers) northwest of Palawan, while the other is 76 miles (123 kilometers) from the western Philippine province, Layug said.
The Philippine government told China the areas are located well within Philippine waters and are far from any disputed area, officials said.
"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, Layug 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.
Associated Press writer Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.