Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the resource-rich region despite rival claims from Southeast Asian neighbours and has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
The artificial islands are considered a potential flashpoint and recent comments from White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have raised the temperature.
But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on a visit to Australia that war would benefit no-one.
“For any sober-minded politician, they clearly recognise that there cannot be conflict between China and the United States,” he said in Canberra through an interpreter late Tuesday, the ABC reported.
“Both will lose and both sides cannot afford that.”
Spicer last month said the US “is going to make sure we protect our interests” in the South China Sea while Tillerson said China’s access to the islands might be blocked — raising the prospect of a military confrontation.
Wang said the US-China relationship had defied “all sorts of difficulties” over decades and pointed to more recent statements by US Defence Secretary James Mattis that it was important to give priority to diplomatic efforts.
After scheduled strategic dialogue talks with Wang, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Wednesday said Beijing was keen for a close relationship with the Trump government.
“Beijing certainly welcomes a deep engagement with the United States,” she told Sky News.