By Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Tuesday it backed a Russian proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons for destruction, a plan that could avert planned U.S. military strikes in response to the country's suspected use of its arsenal on civilians.
U.S. President Barack Obama has argued that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, fighting to continue his family's four-decade rule, must be punished for what Washington says was a poison gas attack on rebel areas that killed more than 1,400 people on August 21.
Hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday commented that a strike could be avoided if the Syrian leadership handed over its chemical weapons, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had put a proposal to his visiting Syrian counterpart during talks in Moscow.
"We welcome and support the Russian proposal," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regular news briefing.
"As long as it is a proposal that helps ameliorate the current tense situation in Syria, is beneficial to maintaining peace and stability in Syria and the region, and is beneficial to a political resolution, the international community ought to give it positive consideration," Hong said.
Hong added that a Syrian opposition delegation from the "All-Nation Union for Dialogue" was visiting China from Tuesday at the invitation of an academic group and would meet Chinese officials for a "deep exchange of views".
It was not immediately clear which opposition group Hong was referring to and he did not provide its English name.
China has previously played host to both government and opposition figures as it tries to show it is not taking sides in the conflict and wants to help find a political solution.
Damascus has also welcomed the Russian initiative, but it has not spelled out whether Syria would, or even could, comply.
Rebels fighting Assad's forces on the ground, where hundreds are being killed by conventional bullets and explosives every week, dismissed any such weapons transfer as impossible to police and a decoy to frustrate U.S. plans to attack.
The U.S. State Department later said Kerry had called Lavrov to tell him that while his remarks had been rhetorical and the United States was not going to "play games," if there was a serious proposal, then Washington would take a look at it.
A strong response on the Syrian chemical weapons attack would help deter North Korea from using its "massive chemical weapons arsenal", U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said in Beijing earlier on Tuesday.
"I emphasized the massive chemical weapons arsenal that North Korea has and that we didn't want to live in a world in which North Korea felt the threshold for chemical weapons use had been lowered," Miller told reporters.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has urged Washington to proceed with "extreme caution" on Syria and Chinese President Xi Jinping told Obama at a G20 summit in Russia that a military strike could not solve the problem.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina; Editing by Nick Macfie)