U.S. has 'frank' exchange on South China Sea during Trump visit

BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States and China had a frank exchange of views on the disputed South China Sea during a visit to Beijing by U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping meet business leaders at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

China claims almost the entire strategic waterway through which about $3-trillion worth of goods pass every year, building and militarizing artificial islands. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims.

The issue is likely to feature prominently at two regional summits starting this week, one in Vietnam and the other in the Philippines, which Trump and several leaders will attend. Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the Vietnam meeting.

“We had a frank exchange here in China on maritime security issues and the South China Sea. The U.S. position remains unchanged,” Tillerson told reporters.

“We insist on upholding freedom of navigation, that claimants be consistent with international law and that claimants should stop construction and militarization of outposts in order to maximize prospects for successful diplomacy,” he added.

Both Xi and Trump expressed support for the protection of peace and stability in the South China Sea, China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement following the leaders’ talks.

Both leaders also support the peaceful resolution and management of the dispute via talks and in accordance with “accepted international law”, it added.

“Both sides support the protection of freedom of navigation and overflight for all countries, in accordance with international law,” it said.The United States has angered China with freedom of navigation patrols close to Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea, which have been continued by the Trump administration.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in an apparent policy shift, said on Wednesday he planned to ask China to make clear its intentions in the South China Sea, during Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Vietnam.

Since coming to office 16 months ago, the firebrand leader has been conciliatory to Beijing, despite a ruling by an international arbitration court favoring the Philippines in its territorial dispute with China.

In the past, Duterte has repeatedly said he will raise the sea dispute at the proper time and avoided the issue when Manila hosted two regional meetings this year.

Reporting by Philip Wen and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Christian Shepherd; Editing by Clarence Fernandez