Manila: The Philippines on Wednesday said it has the right to invite foreign companies to explore for oil and gas in waters located between its western coast and the South China Sea, dismissing China's claim to the area in a fresh spat between the Asian neighbours.

The verbal tussle erupted after Energy Secretary Jose Almendras told reporters in Manila this week that the Philippine government has invited major foreign oil companies to invest in fuel exploration in two offshore areas northwest of Palawan province that fall within the country's 300 kilometres exclusive economic zone.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing yesterday that the offshore areas are China's.

"It is illegal for any country, government or company, without the Chinese government's permission, to develop oil and natural gas in waters under Chinese jurisdiction," Hong said when asked to comment on the Philippine plan.

Rejecting China's position, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a brief statement today that the offshore areas being opened to foreign investors "are well within our sovereignty" based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Philippine officials separately accused China last year of repeatedly intruding into its territorial waters, and at least once trying to disrupt a Philippine oil exploration in another offshore area called the Reed Bank, also off Palawan.

Palawan province, about 820 kilometres southwest of Manila, faces the South China Sea. The sea, which surrounds potentially oil- and gas-rich islands and reefs, is claimed entirely by China, but the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have made competing claims.

The Philippines has invited companies to explore for oil and gas in 15 areas nationwide, including in the offshore areas lying 79 kilometres and 123 kilometres from Palawan.