Defence chief belittles China protest of Philippine oil exploration invitations

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Philippine defence secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Thursday dismissed China's protestations over the Philippine government's invitation to major foreign oil companies to invest in fuel exploration near Palawan province in the West Philippine Sea, saying the offshore areas were well within the country's territory.

In an interview, Gazmin also said he saw no reason for fresh tensions to build up over the disputed waters.

"I don't think so. I don't think so," Gazmin said in answer to a question whether the Philippine move might strain relations with China.

"Now, if they get angry, we cannot control their emotions. But then, we still stick to the fact that these (areas) are within our territory. It is ours. Like our President said, 'what is ours is ours.' That's very definite," he told reporters.

Gazmin said he did not see any particular need to step up patrols in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), although "we will continue to maintain our patrols in the area."

He said foreign oil companies should rest assured that their operations would be secure should they accept the Philippine invitation.

"Of course, the investors would not come here if they weren't assured of their safety. We are doing all that we can in order to protect what's ours," Gazmin said.

Energy secretary Jose Almendras earlier said the Philippine government had invited major foreign oil companies to invest in fuel exploration in two offshore areas northwest of Palawan province within the country's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

But when asked to comment, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the offshore areas were under China's jurisdiction.

The Philippines and China traded barbs early last year over repeated incursions by the latter into the former's territory, including an incident in which two Chinese vessels allegedly harassed a Philippine exploration ship at Reed Bank, prompting the Philippines to send planes and Coast Guard ships to the area.

This was followed by a string of other incidents over the next few months that drew protests from the Philippines. China then issued strong words warning the Philippines about its statements.

At the heart of the dispute is competing claims over the Spratly group of islands, a reputedly oil-rich chain of tiny islands and reefs located near Palawan. The chain is claimed wholly by China, and partly by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Viet Nam and Taiwan.

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