MANILA, Philippines >> The Philippine military deployed two warplanes near a disputed area in the South China Sea after a ship searching for oil complained it was harassed by two Chinese patrol boats, officials said Thursday.
The Chinese vessels later left without confrontation, said Philippine military commander Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban.
The incident happened Wednesday at the Reed Bank, which is near the disputed Spratly Islands that are claimed by the Philippines, China and other nations, said Sabban, who heads the military’s Western Command. Philippine officials said the Reed Bank is clearly within Philippine territory.
"The boats approached in a way that the Philippine vessel thought it was better to back off," Carandang told The Associated Press.
Aside from its potential oil deposits, the Spratly archipelago has rich fishing grounds and straddles busy sea lanes that are a crucial conduit for oil and other resources fueling China’s fast-expanding economy and those of other Asian nations. It has long been regarded as a potential flash point for conflict in Asia.
A Philippine military official said the Chinese boats maneuvered close at least twice, apparently trying to show that they would ram the Philippine vessel only to turn away when they got close.
They did not fire any warning shot and later moved away, said the official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
A Philippine navy patrol ship has been deployed to secure the oil exploration activity, which would be resumed at the Reed Bank, the official said.
The Philippines has asked the Chinese Embassy to explain, but Chinese spokesman Ethan Sun declined to immediately comment.
The Spratlys, a group of islands, reefs and atolls believed to be sitting stop vast oil and gas reserves, has been claimed in whole or in part by China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Sabban said he deployed an OV-10 bomber plane and an Islander light aircraft to the Reed Bank to undertake surveillance after the Philippine ship radioed his command.
When the planes reached the area, the foreign vessels had left, said Sabban.
"It’s clearly our territory," Sabban told the AP. "If they’ll bully us, well, even children will fight back."
The vast sea area where the incident happened lies more than 124 miles west of the southwestern Philippine province of Palawan.
Beijing reacted with fury last year when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional security forum in Vietnam that the peaceful resolution of disputes over the Spratly and Paracel island groups was in the American national interest.
Beijing said Washington was interfering in an Asian regional issue.
The United States worries the disputes could hurt access to one of the world’s busiest commercial sea lanes.