Manila: China`s bold claims of control over the South China Sea are one of the biggest threats to peace in Southeast Asia, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario warned on Friday.
The threat concerns not only the rival claimants to the hotly contested area, but also all other entities using the waters for shipping, he said in a speech at a Manila university.
Chinese naval vessels have fired warning volleys at Filipino fishermen, harassed an oil exploration vessel and put up markers on Philippine waters this year after China outlined its "9-dash claim" to the sea in 2009, he said.
"If Philippine sovereign rights can be denigrated by this baseless claim, many countries should begin to contemplate the potential threat to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea," he said.
"The imperative to speak frankly was borne out of an enormous sense of exigency and urgency... to one of the greatest threats to the stability of our progressive Southeast Asian neighbourhood."
Tensions have risen in recent months, with countries in the region claiming China has been more aggressive in enforcing its claims on parts of the South China Sea.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims to all or parts of the sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.
Del Rosario repeated calls for UN arbitration on the disputes and for all claimants to jointly develop disputed sections, while asserting Manila`s sovereign right to explore for oil and gas deposits on its own in the sea`s Reed Bank section.
The Philippine energy department announced plans this week to auction off areas of the South China Sea for oil exploration, despite worsening territorial rows with China, which prefers bilateral talks on the disputes.
The Filipino plan drew an angry response from China`s official media, which accused the Philippines of violating a 2002 declaration between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for self-restraint on the dispute.
A China Daily editorial on Friday pointedly singled out the Philippines as it said the Chinese government would not allow its territory to be nibbled away.
"There could well be a high price to pay for any misjudgement on the South China Sea issue by countries like the Philippines," it said.