(Adds comment from Merkel, Li)
* Says South China Sea dispute in serious
* Merkel trip focused on shoring up German trade interests
* Germany and China agree deal for sale of 130 Airbus jets
* Also ready to agree to abstain from industrial espionage
By Andreas Rinke
BEIJING, Oct 29 (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed concern on Thursday about a territorial dispute between the Chinese and U.S. navies in the South China Sea, and suggested China go to international courts to resolve the row.
On a two-day visit to China, Merkel said it was essential that sea trade routes remain open despite the dispute, which flared up after a U.S. warship challenged China’s territorial assertions in the disputed waters this week.
“The territorial dispute in the South China Sea is a serious conflict. I am always a bit surprised why in this case multinational courts should not be an option for a solution,” Merkel said in speech in Beijing.
“Nevertheless, we wish that the sea trade routes stay free and safe, because they are important for all.”
Beijing rebuked Washington for sending a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago on Tuesday, saying it had tracked and warned the USS Lassen and called in the U.S. ambassador to protest.
Merkel and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang earlier addressed the situation in Syria, and agreed there must be a political solution to the crisis there.
Russia last month began air strikes on targets in Syria in a dramatic escalation of foreign involvement in the civil war. This has been criticised by the West as an attempt to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rather than its purported aim of attacking Islamic State militants.
A big focus of Merkel’s China trip is trade and she keen to shore up German business interests challenged by Volkswagen’s emissions scandal and the flurry of deals clinched during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Britain last week.
Her visit paid dividends, with China and Germany signing a deal that will see Chinese airlines buy 130 jets manufactured by European planemaker Airbus Group SE.
Merkel also said Germany and China were ready to sign a deal to abstain from industrial spying.
“We want to sign an agreement that both sides abstain from industrial espionage,” Merkel said, noting that the United States and Britain already have such accords with China.
“We want to follow quickly,” she added. “We are happy that China is willing to do that.”
Merkel is making the trip a year after agreeing an innovation partnership deal with China to develop business ties. China would like to make better use of it to tap German know-how in technological developments.
Li said China would like to learn from Germany’s industrial capabilities.
“The Chinese government will continue to firmly promise to protect intellectual property, and firmly oppose the theft of commercial secrets,” he said.
“We both hope and believe that we should start, as soon as possible, a feasibility study on China-EU free trade area negotiations, and work to establish a China-EU free trade area,” Li added. (Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Robert Birsel)