Asia-Pacific

Chinese premier speaks on South China Sea

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gestures while speaking during a press conference after the closing session of the annual National People's Congress, March 16, 2016. Source: AAP

China says it wants to be a powerful force for world peace, despite the ongoing dispute over the South China Sea.

China sees no contradiction between its insistence on safeguarding territory it claims and its desire for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, Premier Li Keqiang said on Wednesday.

Striking a moderate tone, Li also said China was comfortable with a continued US presence in the region, despite its past characterisation of Washington, Australia and others as unwelcome interlopers.

China can "engage in cooperation with them in the Asia-Pacific and manage well our differences," he said.

Li's remarks were milder than those last week by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who sternly warned that Beijing would not permit other nations to infringe on its sovereign rights in the strategic South China Sea.

Wang also rejected accusations that China was militarising the area by building man-made islands and topping them with airstrips, turning the accusation back on the United States.

While Li did not address any disputes directly, he reaffirmed China's desire for a calm regional environment and good neighbourly relations, saying differences could be handled through diplomatic means.

Although China's commitment to upholding its sovereignty and territorial integrity is "totally unambiguous," Li said it would also be a "powerful force" for world peace.

The US, Vietnam, the Philippines and others have complained that China's island building project has raised tensions by changing the status quo in the area, where six Asian governments have overlapping claims.

The South China Sea includes sea lanes through which more than $US5 trillion ($A6.71 trillion) in global trade passes each year, along with rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits.

Despite China's strong objections, the US Navy says it will continue to sail and fly past the new Chinese islands.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch