The South China Sea issue has increasingly been divided into two different issues: a solvable one between China and Asean countries, and an intractable one between China and the United States caused by the American insistence on using warships to get its point across, a senior Chinese official said.
China also warned it may "take more countermeasures" against US freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea, which it views as deliberately provocative.
At a discussion between academics yesterday on building maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing drove home its stance through two interventions from the floor by senior Chinese officials.
Director-general of border and maritime affairs Yi Xianliang said that while China and Asean countries are negotiating on the basis of technical, legal and historic grounds, the current US administration "prefers to talk to us at sea".
"Everyone knows that freedom-of-navigation patrols have occurred 15 times, so our feeling is that the Americans are more willing to use warships to express their views," he said in the discussion at the Boao Forum for Asia.
Another official, Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, said that while the two navies had agreed on the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in 2014, the problem is that US ships now sail to the South China Sea "in a very well-planned way".
"China's improved capabilities mean we are less likely to tolerate provocations at our doorstep... and may take more countermeasures," said Col Zhou, who is the director of the Centre for Security Cooperation, an office with China's Ministry of Defence.
Experts at the discussion, which did not include any American speakers, agreed that US-China competition in different arenas such as trade and technology has complicated the South China Sea issue.
"As yet unresolved trade issues are accompanied by deep-seated strategic rivalries that include the South China Sea, (while) the US programme of freedom-of-navigation patrols does not fit at all with China's own interpretation of international law," noted Professor Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta in Canada.
But the experts also noted that good progress is being made on the code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea by Asean and China, with all parties incentivised to reach an early conclusion.
A finalised COC would strengthen regional order and stave off proxy competition between the big powers, while also burnishing China's image in the international community and improving the appeal of its Belt and Road Initiative, said Mr Jusuf Wanandi, who is a senior fellow at Indonesia's Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
East Asian Institute director Zheng Yongnian said even if competition between the US and a rising China is inevitable, it can be channelled in more productive ways, such as economic competition.
He noted that when China proposed a free trade agreement with Asean, other countries in the region wanted to deepen their own economic cooperation with the bloc.
Prof Houlden agreed, noting that it was far better for the US and China to come to a compromise now than to try to pick up the pieces after an incident in the South China Sea, the fallout from which would be dangerous for a whole range of bilateral issues.
Last October, there was a near collision between a US naval vessel and a Chinese destroyer during a patrol in the Spratly islands.
"To put matters right after a serious incident would be far more difficult than finding some imperfect compromises between Beijing and Washington," he said. "Creativity and courage are needed on both sides; prevention is better than remedial action."