MANILA (Reuters) - The European Union should expand free trade negotiations in Asia to include the Philippines, China and Indonesia after it finalised a comprehensive trade pact with Singapore last year, Britain's foreign secretary said on Thursday.
Britain wants to increase trade ties with rapidly growing countries in Asia, partly due to the slowdown in the euro zone. China and the Philippines are the region's two fastest growing economies.
"Britain is an energetic advocate of EU free trade agreements with Asian countries, including those currently under negotiation with Thailand and Japan, and possible future agreements with China, Indonesia and the Philippines," William Hague told a business and diplomatic forum.
"We would like the European Union to negotiate free trade agreements much more widely around the world," Hague later told Reuters at the end of visits to Indonesia and the Philippines.
"It is very important for the British economy to rebalance, to shift a bigger share of its exports and trade outside Europe," he said. "The slowdown and the difficulties in the euro zone reinforced the importance of this."
Hague said 2013 marked the first time in 40 years that Britain had exported more to countries outside Europe than within the EU. In November, Britain's non-EU exports were 12.5 billion pounds ($20.7 billion), slightly higher that shipments to EU of 12.4 billion pounds, based on latest trade data.
In September, the EU and Singapore finalised one of the world's most comprehensive free trade pacts, a deal expected to enter into force late this year or early 2015.
Britain plans to increase the number of its diplomats in its embassies in Asia and open five new posts next year after reopening its embassy in Laos.
"Our engagement in Asia is as much about security as it is about trade and prosperity. We are setting our country firmly on the path to far closer ties with countries across Asia over the next 20 years," Hague said.
Territorial disputes in the region, particularly those pitting China against South East Asian nations over large parts of the South China Sea, must be resolved under a rules-based system and in line with international laws, he said.
These disputes do not deter Britain from expanding economic ties with countries involved, he said.
"We don't want to see such tensions, it is very important in our view that there is always a peaceful resolution of any such disputes," he said.
(Reporting by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Ron Popeski)