No country should take unilateral action that could be deemed provocative in the South China Sea in ongoing territorial disputes, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday at the close of high-level meetings in Beijing.
"China has said to us repeatedly that [competing territorial claims] should be resolved under the terms of the law of the sea and the code of conduct, which has yet to be completed. If those things take place then hopefully restraint and common sense will rule the day," Kerry told a press briefing following the two-day talks.
"I think our position is very clear in respect to maritime law. We want the traditional historic freedom of navigation and overflight to be respected," Kerry added.
The eighth China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue was aimed at managing conflict between the countries and improving bilateral relations.
The US side also raised concerns about China's legislation on foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs), excess production capacity and the worsening business climate during the dialogue, however the South China Sea dispute overshadowed the meetings.
Tensions between US and China have risen as Beijing has sought to assert its control in the face of competing territorial claims from countries in the region.
Chinese President Xi Jinping had told delegates on Monday that some differences between the two sides "are quite normal," as long as both "tackle differences and sensitive issues in the principle of mutual respect and equality," Xinhua news agency reported.
China claims most of the South China Sea, which includes overlapping claims with Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Several Chinese military deployments to the region have been reported in recent months, while the US has sent naval ships to conduct freedom of navigation operations through the Spratlys, where China has reclaimed land for construction purposes.
Washington takes no position over the competing claims, but says the issue should be resolved diplomatically and asserts the US right to freedom of the seas.
The US actions have sent messages of deterrence to China and assurance to allies but "could also goad China into doubling down on military buildup in the South China Sea," said International Crisis Group senior analyst Yanmei Xie.
"Washington's show of resolve and force has to be complemented by efforts to shore up ASEAN's institutional capacity and capability. It has to ensure its actions support ASEAN's leadership but not replace it," Xie said, referring to the Association of South-East Asian Nations, to which many of the countries with competing territorial claims belong.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to rule soon on a case Philippines brought against China's claims in 2013.