China, Philippines argue over planned oil search

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines said today it has the right to invite foreign companies to explore for oil and gas in waters located between its western coast and the South China Sea, dismissing China’s claim to the area in a fresh spat between the Asian neighbors.

The verbal tussle erupted after Energy Secretary Jose Almendras told reporters in Manila this week that the Philippine government has invited major foreign oil companies to invest in fuel exploration in two offshore areas northwest of Palawan province that fall within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing Tuesday that the offshore areas are China’s.

“It is illegal for any country, government or company, without the Chinese government’s permission, to develop oil and natural gas in waters under Chinese jurisdiction,” Hong said when asked to comment on the Philippine plan.

Rejecting China’s position, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a brief statement Wednesday that the offshore areas being opened to foreign investors “are well within our sovereignty” based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Philippine officials separately accused China last year of repeatedly intruding into its territorial waters, and at least once trying to disrupt a Philippine oil exploration in another offshore area called the Reed Bank, also off Palawan.

Palawan province, about 510 miles southwest of Manila, faces the South China Sea. The sea, which surrounds potentially oil- and gas-rich islands and reefs, is claimed entirely by China, but the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have made competing claims.

The Philippines has invited companies to explore for oil and gas in 15 areas nationwide, including in the offshore areas lying 49 miles and 76 miles from Palawan.

Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug said potential local and foreign investors have been given up to the end of July to apply for exploration contracts in the offshore areas claimed by China. The applications would be assessed during a 90-day period before the government issues exploration permits, Layug said.

Potential investors have not raised China’s claim to the territory as a concern, but the Philippines has taken steps to ensure the security of would-be prospectors, Layug said at a news conference.

Despite China’s claim, the Philippines considers the two offshore exploration areas part of Manila’s regular territory because of its proximity to the country compared with Beijing, which is hundreds of miles away, Layug said.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea on historical grounds and has not responded to a Philippine government invitation to bring the disputes before the United Nations for arbitration.