Philippine president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III. Image courtesey of Office of the President of the Philippines.

The Philippine government halted all exploration work Monday at an offshore oil and gas field in the South China Sea due to an ongoing territorial dispute with China.

UK-based Forum Energy said the country’s Department of Energy (DOE) told it to stop all work at its Reed Bank field, also known as service contract 72, off the western coast of the Philippines.

“Under the terms of the force majeure, all exploration work at SC72 is immediately suspended until the DOE notifies the company that it may commence drilling,” Forum said.

The second sub-phase of SC72 has been put on hold until further notice.

The DOE told the AP it ordered the stoppage because the area “falls within the territorial disputed area of the West Philippine Sea which is the subject of a United Nations arbitration process between the Republic of the Philippines and People’s Republic of China.”

The department did not disclose how long the work stoppage is expected to last.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said a United Nations tribunal could rule on the arbitration case early next year.

Forum, a partly owned subsidiary of Philippines-based Philex Petroleum, holds a 70 percent participating interest in the Reed Bank field.

The dispute has been simmering for years and came to a head in 2013 when the Philippine government challenged China’s territorial claim at the Hague.

China’s Foreign Ministry has defended the Chinese government’s activities in the disputed area as “reasonable, legitimate and legal.”