Britain calls for freedom of navigation in South China Sea

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speaks at Peking University in Beijing on Aug 12, 2015.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speaks at Peking University in Beijing on Aug 12, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Britain's top diplomat called for freedom of navigation and overflights in the disputed South China Sea on Wednesday but stopped short of criticising China, whose assertive territorial claims have unnerved some of its neighbours and the United States.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, speaking in Beijing days after a visit to Japan, added that the process of post-World War Two reconciliation was "not yet complete" in Asia. His remarks come as China prepares to hold a military parade in September to commemorate the end of the war.

Hammond said Britain had a great interest in the stability of the South China Sea though it does not take a position on territorial issues.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims. "We want to see claims dealt with by rules-based, not power-based, solutions in Asia as elsewhere, in a way that is consistent with the long-term peace and stability of the region, with freedom of navigation and overflight, and in accordance with international law," he told a group of university students.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry last week accused China of restricting navigation and overflights. Kerry told a meeting of regional leaders in Kuala Lumpur that China's construction of facilities on man-made islands for "military purposes" was raising tension and risked "militarisation" by other claimant states.

China, which claims most of the sea, responded that freedom of navigation and overflights did not mean allowing other countries to trample on sovereignty and security.

The Beijing military parade will be the first for President Xi Jinping since he came to power, though the White House and some European leaders have expressed concerns that it could send the wrong signal.

Sino-Japan relations have long been affected by what China sees as Japan's failure to atone for its occupation of parts of the country before and during the war. Tensions between the two countries over competing territorial claims in the East China Sea have also flared in recent years.

"We need to reflect on the fact that unlike in Western Europe, the process of reconciliation is not yet complete," Hammond said.

He told reporters that Britain would send a representative to the parade, but did not offer other details. "Remember, thousands of British servicemen died in the Second World War in Asia and it's right that we commemorate that," Hammond said, adding: "We are not huge fans of military parades, showing off shining new aggressive equipment, in general."