Manila: The Philippines will hold joint war games with the United States in March at the same time that the department of energy will award to private firms oil exploration contracts in several areas including an offshore area in the South China Sea which is contested by China, sources said.

The department of energy has already prepared the awarding of 15 service contract areas to oil exploration firms. Announcement will be made in March, said Energy Secretary Jose Almendras, but did not give more details.

Some of the proposed service contracts are in east and northwest Palawan and the Sulu Sea, in southwest and southern Philippines, respectively.

The department of energy launched several contracting rounds since last year, to implement a plan to make the Philippines 60 percent self sufficient in its energy requirement.

The offshore oil drilling areas are in the South China Sea which is being claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Only China has been vocally against the plans of the Philippine government in the South China Sea which the Philippines has called the West Philippines Sea.

Earlier, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said that the Philippine government has offered foreign private firm oil exploration projects within its territory, within the country's 200- nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

He referred to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea as a basis of the Philippines' claim in the South China Sea.

It was in response to two former Chinese envoys in Manila who offered joint Philippines and China drilling exploration in the contested areas, to prevent making the South China Sea a flashpoint in the region.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said was quoted as saying that the Philippine government's offer of service contract areas to private firms was illegal, adding, "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."

Joint exercises

The joint war games between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the United States were coincidentally scheduled with plans to announce the granting of service contract areas to private firms.

At the same time, the Armed Forces of the Philippines vowed to secure oil companies exploring in the Philippines, with the help of surveillance planes and patrol ships.

The AFP will spend P 1 billion (Dh 83,333.33) to secure the country's maritime borders with the so-called coast watch system on the country's western flank facing the South China Sea. The project, to be implemented in two years, will cover training, purchase of radars, command and control communication equipment.

Last year, President Benigno Aquino called for US assistance in containing China's flexing of muscle in the South China Sea.

This was done after the Philippine government accused China of launching seven incidents in the disputed South China Sea.

China, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim the whole of the South China Sea, while the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei claim some parts of the Spratly Archipelago in the South China Sea.