BEIJING, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- China, asserting its sovereignty in the South China Sea, protested the Philippines' decision to invite foreign investors to hunt for oil and gas in the region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, responding to Philippine Energy Secretary Jose Almendras' announcement, told reporters: "It is unlawful for any country or company to explore oil and gas in sea areas under Chinese jurisdiction without the permission of the Chinese government."
China Daily reported Wednesday the Philippine Energy Department is proceeding with plans to offer 15 offshore territories for oil and gas exploration, including two near Palawan province that are part of China's sovereign territory.
In a similar protest last year, China said the areas are part of the South China Sea region in waters where it has "historic titles" and "sovereign rights and jurisdiction."
Japan's Kyodo News quoted Almendras as saying in Manila Monday his government hopes to award the contracts to any winning bidder next month, including in the two areas contested by Beijing.
"We offered these service contracts, which the Republic of the Philippines believes is within its territorial claims," Almendras was quoted as saying.
Manila said the two areas are about 50 miles northwest of Palawan province and belong to the Philippines.
The South China Sea question has become a major maritime issue as China, with its growing economic and military clout, asserts its sovereignty the sea, including the energy-rich Spratly Islands.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have competing and differing claims.
China Daily reported Wang Yingfan, former Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, had said last week China and the Philippines should jointly explore and develop some areas in the South China Sea.
Hong urged the countries to refrain from taking steps that will complicate or aggravate the dispute, and to make due efforts for the peace and stability of the South China Sea.
Various reports have said part of the U.S. reason for shifting its military's strategy to the Asia-Pacific region is to deal with the growing Chinese threat.
Testifying before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, underscored the strategic importance of the South China Sea.
He said one of the needs of the U.S. military in the Pacific region is maritime security and access as about $5.3 trillion in commerce flows through the South China Sea, much of it belonging to the United States.