China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.

Speaking at the National University of Singapore, Xi said freedom of passage in the South China Sea has never been a problem and will never be a problem, but the islands there have always been Chinese. "To maintain the sovereignty and proper, reasonable maritime rights is a responsibility the Chinese government must take on," Xi said.
              
"Right of passage or flight has never been a problem and will never be a problem, because China needs the freedom of passage in the South China Sea the most," he added.

"Though some islets over which China has sovereignty have been occupied by others, China has always committed to solve the problem by peaceful negotiations," Xi said.

Xi, on the second leg of a Southeast Asian trip that has also taken in Vietnam, has sought to strike a more conciliatory tone on the South China sea while in the region. On Friday, China and Vietnam agreed to maintain peace at sea as Xi lauded relations with its much smaller but also communist-led neighbour.

Vietnam and China's competing territorial claims mushroomed into a major dispute last year after China parked an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea, leading to anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

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