China warned Asian neighbours on Thursday to stop searching for oil near the disputed Spratly Islands and vowed to assert its sovereignty over the potentially petroleum-rich territory in the South China Sea despite rival claims.
China and the Philippines have swapped diplomatic protests over the islands, with Filipino officials accusing Chinese forces of intruding into Manila-claimed areas six times since February and of firing shots in at least one incident.
Beijing denied the allegation on Thursday and said it would use violence only when attacked.
The Spratlys, which are believed to be atop vast oil and gas reserves, have long been feared as a potential flash point of armed conflict in Asia.
The chain of barren, largely uninhabited islands, reefs and banks, are claimed wholly by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and partly by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Addressing Manila's complaints for the first time, Chinese ambassador Liu Jianchao denied that his government committed any intrusion.
He said that China has not started to drill for oil in the contested region and warned other claimants to stop any oil exploration in the Chinese-claimed area without Beijing's permission. China claims the entire South China Sea.
"We're calling on other parties to stop searching for the possibility of exploiting resources in these areas where China has its claims," he told reporters.
China, however, is open to engaging other claimant countries in jointly exploring for oil and gas in the region, he said.
Asked what would happen if countries defy China, Liu said that Beijing would assert its right over the disputed region diplomatically and not resort to force unless it comes under attack.
"We will never use force unless we are attacked," he said.
In the most serious incident reported by the Philippines, Chinese navy vessel allegedly fired February 25 to scare away Filipino fishermen from Jackson Atoll, which is claimed by Manila and relatively close to Philippine shore.