Philippine President Benigno Aquino III insisted Friday that his country won't be bullied by China in a territorial spat over the Spratly Islands, but also announced an end to oil exploration in the disputed waters that had angered Beijing.
Aquino struck a defiant tone in an interview with The Associated Press, saying that China should not "intrude" on Manila-claimed waters and that the Philippines "will not be pushed around."
Aquino also said that his government has completed oil and gas exploration around Reed Bank, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) from western Palawan province, and that the prospects are "very good." He declined to elaborate for fear of further stoking tension over the area, which also is claimed by China.
The Chinese ambassador in Manila said last week that China has not started to drill for oil in the area yet and warned others to stop any oil exploration in the area without Beijing's permission. China has said it is open to engaging other countries in joint oil and gas explorations.
"We will not be pushed around because we are a tiny state compared with theirs," Aquino said.
"We think we have very solid grounds to say 'do not intrude into our territory' and that is not a source of dispute or should not be a source of dispute," the president said.
The vast South China Sea and its island groups form one of Asia's most politically sensitive regions, with China, Vietnam and the Philippines trading diplomatic barbs recently over overlapping territorial claims. Vietnam's navy conducted live-firing exercises Monday after accusing Chinese boats of disrupting oil and gas exploration in its waters.
The Philippines already has protested over six or seven incidents involving alleged Chinese intrusion into waters that Manila says belongs to it because they lie within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone that is covered by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In February, the Philippines accused Chinese naval ships of harassing an exploration ship out of Reed Bank. Chinese Ambassador Liu Jianchao said last week that China was exercising its sovereign rights over all of the South China Sea.
"The overall strategy, we're not going to engage in an arms race with them. We are not going to escalate the tensions there but we do have to protect our rights," Aquino said.