The Philippines has filed an official protest with China, claiming Chinese patrol boats harassed a Philippine ship while it explored for oil this week near a chain of internationally disputed islands.
The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs submitted the complaint to China on Thursday. DFA spokesman Ed Malaya says the oil explorer was well within Philippine national boundaries.
"The area is part of Philippine maritime territory. Specifically it happened in the Reed Bank, which is out of the Spratlys group of islands and its adjacent waters," said Malaya.
Reed Bank is about 150 kilometers east of the Spratly Islands on the South China Sea. China says the oil-rich Spratlys are part of its territory. But five other Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, also claim part or all of the islands.
The Philippine military says its western region office received an emergency call from a ship on an exploration assignment for the country’s Department of Energy. Ship officers said two Chinese patrol vessels circled their craft "menacingly close" near the Reed Bank area.
The Philippines sent two war planes to fly over the oil exploration location. A lieutenant with the western region says the Chinese patrol boats departed before the aircraft arrived.
Malaya says the Philippines is seeking an explanation for the incident. "Our government is in a dialogue with the Chinese side and we’re hopeful that we will be receiving that explanation soon," he said.
The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines issued a statement Friday saying the Nansha Islands, as China calls them, have been an "indisputable" part of the country’s sovereignty since ancient times. The embassy says the remaining disputes over ownership should be resolved through peaceful negotiations.
The United States angered China last year when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting that the dispute should be settled through multilateral channels. China dismissed the statement.
Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam also claim the islands as part of their territories.