- Associated Press - Monday, November 14, 2011

MANILA — China has claimed new territory less than 50 miles 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.

Philippines 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, Mr. 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 violate 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 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 northwest of Palawan, while the other is 76 miles 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.