China told the United States on Tuesday that it should play a constructive role in safeguarding peace in the disputed South China Sea, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for talks and a peaceful resolution.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims, as well as close military ties with the United States.
China has been angered by what it views as provocative U.S. military patrols close to islands China controls in the South China Sea. The United States says the patrols are to protect freedom of navigation.
Speaking at the end of high-level Sino-U.S. talks in Beijing, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat who outranks the foreign minister, said China had the right to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights.
"China respects and protects the right that all countries enjoy under international law to freedom of navigation and overflight," Yang told reporters.
Disputes should be resolved by the parties involved through consultation, he said.
"China hopes the U.S. will scrupulously abide by its promise to not take sides in relevant territorial disputes and play a constructive role in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea," Yang said.
Kerry said the United States did not take a position on the sovereignty of any land features in the South China Sea but thought all claimants should exercise restraint.
"We reiterated America's fundamental support for negotiations and a peaceful resolution based on the rule of law as well as our concern about any unilateral steps by any party ... to alter the status quo," Kerry said.
Kerry added that he and Yang reaffirmed their governments' commitment to upholding the freedom of navigation and overflight.