Philippines files protest against China's test flights in disputed sea

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines has filed a protest against China's test flights from an artificial island in the South China Sea, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Wednesday, describing the actions as "provocative" and a violation of an existing informal code. Last week, Beijing landed three flights on Fiery Cross in the disputed Spratly archipelago, angering Vietnam and drawing criticism from the United States, which expressed deep concern it will exacerbate tension in the region. "We formally protested on Jan. 8 the recent test flights by China to Kagitingan Reef," Charles Jose told reporters, using the local name for Fiery Cross Reef, saying the foreign ministry summoned China's embassy official to hand over the protest. Jose said the test flights were "provocative actions" that will restrict the freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea. Every year more than $5 trillion of world trade is shipped through the South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, which China claims almost entirely. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims. "These actions by China have elevated tensions and anxiety in the region and are in violation of the spirit and letter of the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of parties in the South China Sea," he added. Since 2010, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been negotiating a legally binding code of conduct to replace the informal rules contained in a political declaration made in Phnom Penh in 2002. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei rejected Manila's complaint, saying China had the right to freely fly over the South China Sea, as did other countries. "The Philippines' criticism has ulterior motives and is not worth refuting," Hong told a daily news briefing. In Washington, foreign and defense ministers of both the Philippines and the United States held talks on trade and security issues, including the U.S. Navy's plan to hold more freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. U.S. ships and planes will have longer time to patrol the disputed sea because they were given access to Philippine naval and air bases under a new military deal, which the Philippine Supreme Court allowed on Tuesday, called the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter welcomed the court's decision as both Philippine and U.S. military began discussions on a dozen possible locations in its former colony where American ships and planes will have access. (Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)