By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA, May 8 (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino, in remarks that follow Chinese warnings against Philippine flights over the South China Sea, said on Friday it was important to uphold the right to fly in that area.
"It is in our interest to uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight in South China Sea, a region that is of vital importance not only to Southeast Asia but also to the rest of the global community," Aquino, who was visiting Canada, said during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
A day earlier, a Philippine military commander said in Manila that China had warned Philippine air force and navy planes at least six times to leave areas around the disputed South China Sea.
Beijing claims most of the potentially energy-rich sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims, and attention has focused on the Spratly archipelago, where China is asserting its claims by building a chain of islands on coral reefs.
Aquino hailed a statement by the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries last month which opposed large-scale land reclamation and emphasized following international law.
"We welcome the growing consensus across the international community that a rules-based approach must be observed in managing maritime disputes in the sea to the west of my country, a sea that is known by many names," he said.
Japan will weigh in by joining the Philippines this month in their first joint naval drill in the South China Sea, near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, sources in Tokyo and the Philippines said.
Aquino discussed the South China Sea situation with Harper in talks that also covered economic issues, and Harper said the Philippine president had acted prudently and responsibly.
Harper said Canada typically did not take positions on maritime territorial disputes.
"What I would say is this, however: That there should not be provocative and unilateral actions in this regard, that all parties should respect international responsibilities and any international rulings on the matter," he said.
Harper also announced the start of exploratory talks aimed at developing a free-trade agreement with the Philippines.
(Editing by Bernadette Baum)