Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday urged restraint in the handling of South China Sea disputes as China revealed that one of its top military officers had visited contested islands in the resource-rich waters.
General Fan Changlong, vice- chairman of the Central Military Commission, "recently" went to see officers and soldiers based on the Spratly chain of islands and inspected building work there, according to China's Defence Ministry.
The announcement came as US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter visited an American aircraft carrier transiting the South China Sea at the close of joint US-Philippines military exercises in Manila yesterday.
It also came as Mr Turnbull was making his first trip to China since becoming Prime Minister last September. He is leading a record 1,000-strong business team on a two-day visit meant to boost economic and trade ties, but clouded by rising tensions in the South China Sea.
In comments to reporters before his meeting with President Xi Jinping, Mr Turnbull emphasised that there could be no regional prosperity without peace and stability.
He played down concerns that Canberra, as a key Washington ally in the Pacific and a critic of Beijing's land reclamation works on disputed isles, had to choose between its economic ties with China and its security alliance with the US.
"My engagement with Chinese leaders, which has been quite extensive since I've become Prime Minister, reassures me that China understands our position," said Mr Turnbull, according to Australian media.
"They understand our commitment to a peaceful and stable region and that is why we continue, as I said, to urge all claimants to settle any territorial disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law."
Mr Turnbull reportedly raised the South China Sea issue in wide-ranging talks with Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday and again with Mr Xi yesterday. He told them that their assertive posture in the region risks harming China's international ties.
Beijing's claims to most of the South China Sea have been challenged by other countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
Tensions have risen over China's deployment of missiles on a disputed island and freedom of navigation patrols by the US, where its ships and aircraft move within 12-nautical mile territorial limits around disputed islands controlled by China. The strains have further escalated as a United Nations- backed arbitration panel in The Hague prepares to rule on a case brought by Manila against Beijing's maritime claims.
Still, China and Australia have continued to stress their strong links. According to Chinese news programme Xinwen Lianbo, Mr Xi pointed to the "positive development of ties" and urged greater collaboration for win-win outcomes during his meeting with Mr Turnbull. "Both countries must treasure the proper direction of bilateral ties, respect each other's core interest and show consideration to ensure the healthy and stable development of relations," he said.