US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday warned China not to impose an air defence zone over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) similar to the one it declared over disputed islands in the East China Sea last month, sparking fresh tensions over territorial rows in the region.
"The zone should not be implemented and China should refrain from taking similar, unilateral actions elsewhere in the region, and particularly over the South China Sea," Kerry told a news conference in Manila.
Kerry also announced a fresh US infusion of US$40 million (S$50 million) in new assistance to help the Philippines protect its territorial waters amid tensions with China over disputed territory in the West Philippine Sea.
The amount, to be allocated through the US Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF), will be spent over three years and used to "enhance Philippine law enforcement capabilities in securing maritime borders and combating terrorism," the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.
The new aid is intended to complement a US$32.5-million assistance package, which Kerry announced Monday in Vietnam, that will help Southeast Asian nations protect their territorial waters. Up to US$18 million of that money will go to provide the Vietnamese Coast Guard with five new fast patrol boats.
US presence Kerry arrived from Hanoi Tuesday afternoon for a two-day visit that could fast-track a deal on expanding the US military presence in the Philippines as the territorial dispute between Manila and Beijing in the West Philippine Sea simmered.
Kerry flew to Manila as the United States and the Philippines were in the final stages of hammering out an agreement allowing more US troops, aircraft and ships to temporarily pass through the Philippines, where the last US military bases closed in 1992.
Visiting the Philippines for the first time since becoming the US secretary of state on February 2, Kerry met with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario at the DFA.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III was to play host to Kerry at dinner in Malacañang Tuesday night, after a one-on-one meeting.
He will also visit communities devastated by Supertyphoon "Yolanda" (international name: Haiyan) last month, highlighting a massive US humanitarian response to the disaster that contrasted with a modest contribution from China.
His visit to Tacloban City on Wednesday will be brief.
"Mr Kerry will be visiting the headquarters of USAID (US Agency for International Development) in Tacloban where he will be briefed on the efforts they are taking there," Eduardo del Rosario, head of the national disaster council, told reporters.
The Philippines warned last month that China's declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea raised the prospect of it doing the same in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan claim territories in those waters, nearly all of which China insists it owns. "Today, I raised our deep concerns about China's announcement of an East China Sea air defence identification zone," Kerry said, referring to his discussions with Del Rosario.
"I told the foreign secretary that the United States does not recognise that zone and does not accept it," Kerry said.
Beijing's East China Sea air defence zone requires aircraft to provide flight plans when traversing the area, declare their nationality and maintain two-way radio communication, or face "emergency defensive measures."
The zone covers disputed Japan-controlled islands-known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China-where ships and aircraft from the two countries already shadow each other.
'Treaty ally' Calling the Philippines a "treaty ally," Kerry said the United States "strongly opposes the use of intimidation, coercion or aggression to advance territorial claims," and reiterated that Washington "remains firmly committed to the security of the Philippines and the region."
In January, the Philippines took China to a United Nations tribunal over the contested Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a resource-rich fishing ground within Manila's 327-kilometre exclusive economic zone that the Chinese seized after a two-month maritime standoff last year.
"The United States is committed to working with the Philippines to address its most pressing security challenges," Kerry said.
"That is why we are negotiating a strong and enduring framework agreement that will enhance defence cooperation under our alliance, including through an increased rotational presence in the Philippines," he said.
Code of conduct Kerry also said he supported the efforts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to negotiate with China a binding code of conduct that would govern territorial disputes, a proposal that has somewhat gained headway this year with Beijing agreeing to consultations.
Kerry said a code of conduct in disputed waters was "key to reducing the risk of accidents or miscalculation," as had occurred between US and Chinese warships that nearly collided in international waters in the South China Sea on December 5.
Supporting the Philippines' taking its territorial dispute with China to the United Nations for arbitration, Kerry said: "We think that claimants have a responsibility to clarify their claims and to align their claims to international law. That's the way to proceed in resolving any disputes in the South China Sea-peacefully and with international law."
Shared principles Malacanang said Kerry's support for the government's decision to go into arbitration strengthened the Philippine position, also backed by Japan and ASEAN, to seek a peaceful resolution to its territorial dispute with China.
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said Kerry's visit to Manila was a clear message that the United States supported freedom of navigation and aviation in the region.
"Within the framework of Philippine-US strategic partnership, the visit's likely outcome is an affirmation of shared principles in meeting common challenges, as well as tapping fresh opportunities," Coloma said.
Asked to elaborate on "shared principles," Coloma said: "[Common] belief in the rule of law and in peaceful settlement of disputes, freedom of navigation and aviation."