The Philippines received bids Tuesday to explore for oil and gas deposits in two South China Sea areas also claimed by China, which already had protested the potential contracts as an infringement on its territorial rights.
The Philippines has dismissed China’s claims, saying the offshore areas lie well within the Philippines’s internationally-recognised 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, where it has sole right to exploit resources under a UN convention.
China is claiming to own waters that lie very near the Philippines, including one area just 79 kilometers (49 miles) northwest of Palawan province, according to Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug Jr.
The two oil exploration areas for which the bids were received are more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the nearest Chinese coast, he said.
“We don’t see any problem with what we have done,” Layug told a news conference. “These areas are clearly within the sovereign rights of the Philippines.”
Energy officials would evaluate the bids and award the contracts within 100 days, he said.
The Department of Energy received bids from the Philippine firm Helios Petroleum and Gas Corporation and a consortium of the state-owned Philippine National Oil Company-Exploration Corporation, along with Philex Petroleum and PetroEnergy Resources Corporation, Layug told The Associated Press. A fourth bid also received Tuesday involves an undisputed area.
After the Philippines invited investors to bid for the right to explore in the contested waters, the Chinese Embassy delivered a protest note in July last year.
“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.”
The two areas lie near another contested offshore region called the Reed Bank, where two Chinese ships tried to drive away a Philippine oil exploration vessel in March last year. A Filipino general deployed two planes to check the incident but the Chinese ships have left when the aircraft reached the bank. The Philippines protested the incident as one of several intrusions by China into its territorial waters that reignited tensions starting last year.
Beijing has been asserting its territorial claims more aggressively as its economic and diplomatic muscle has grown. It virtually claims the entire South China Sea, including offshores areas believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits and which straddle some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
The other claimants include Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. Washington has declared the peaceful resolution of the conflicts and freedom of navigation in the contested region to be in its national interest. Many fear Asia’s next major armed conflict could erupt in the disputed waters.
Cambodia and the Philippines, meanwhile, have engaged in a war of words over how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, currently chaired by Cambodia, should deal with the territorial conflicts. The 10-nation bloc includes four of the Southeast China Sea claimants – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The Philippines has accused Cambodia, a close ally of China, of being biased in favour of Beijing.
Cambodian Ambassador Hos Sereythonh said in published remarks Monday that the Philippines and Vietnam “wanted to sabotage and hijack” a recent Asean meeting to push their territorial claims against China.
Philippine diplomats said they summoned the Cambodian envoy Tuesday but he failed to show up.