British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on Thursday said any attempt to restrict air and sea travel in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) would be viewed as a “red flag.”
China said it landed three planes over Fiery Cross Reef in recent days, prompting protests from rival claimants Vietnam and the Philippines, and raising fears it could impose military controls in the area.
“Freedom of navigation and overflight are non-negotiable. They are red flags for us,” Hammond told a joint news conference with his Filipino counterpart, Albert del Rosario, in Manila.
Hammond, whose Manila visit followed a trip to China, did not elaborate on what action would be taken if the “red flag” was raised, other than to say Britain would continue to assert its right to sail in the area.
Del Rosario said he was worried that, with the test flights, China was laying the groundwork for the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), similar to the one it declared in the East China Sea that riled Japan.
“If this is not challenged, China will take the position that the ADIZ could be imposed and whether this is done in terms of a de facto basis or whether it is official, this will be deemed as unacceptable to us,” he added.
Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea, has also condemned the test flights as a violation of its sovereignty.
China has alarmed its rivals with its massive reclamation and construction of facilities on disputed reefs.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying last Saturday said after announcing the first test flight that it was “civilian” in nature.
The Philippines has asked a United Nations-backed tribunal to void China’s claim over almost the entire South China Sea.
It expects a decision this year.
China did not participate in the arbitration hearings at The Hague as it maintained that sea disputes should be resolved bilaterally.
“Win or lose, we will abide by the rule of law and we expect China to do the same,” Del Rosario said.
Hammond said Britain will not take sides on the dispute but appealed to claimants to resolve their differences under international law.
“We recognize the tribunal and we will recognize the decision of the tribunal,” he added.
During his visit, Hammond will meet with President Benigno Aquino 3rd to discuss growing strategic partnership between the UK and the Philippines as global and regional challenges threaten security and prosperity, including global efforts to tackle extremism.
He will also meet Filipino business leaders to discuss the Asean economic community and the opportunities and challenges in boosting trade and investment on both sides.