BEIJING (Reuters) - The leaders of China and Vietnam had "positive" talks about the disputed South China Sea on Thursday with neither side criticizing the other, a senior Chinese diplomat said.
Vietnam is the country most openly at odds with China over the waterway since the Philippines pulled back from confrontation under President Rodrigo Duterte.
Speaking after Chinese President Xi Jinping met Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the South China Sea had been brought up in their talks.
"It was discussed but the main tone was very positive," Liu told reporters.
Both agreed to follow their consensus to continue stabilizing the situation and to keep pushing talks, as well as continue joint resource exploration in less sensitive areas, like the Gulf of Tonkin, he added.
"I think that talking about the South China Sea this time is really a positive piece of news. Neither side raised any criticisms of each other. There were no voices of that were out of step," Liu said.
China claims 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan lay claim to parts of the route, through which about $5 trillion of trade passes each year.
Last year, tensions heightened between Beijing and Hanoi after Taiwan and U.S. officials said Beijing had placed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, part of the Paracel archipelago which China controls.
Vietnam called China's actions a serious infringement of its sovereignty over the Paracels.
In 2014, tensions between the two communist countries peaked more dramatically when China moved an oil rig into disputed waters and protests broke out across Vietnam.
Relations have since gradually improved with a series of high level visits between the two, though the military buildup continues in the region, including China's building of airstrips on man-made islands in the South China Sea.
In comments in front of reporters, Xi told Quang he hoped to take relations to a new stage to better benefit both peoples.
Xi also praised the leadership of Vietnam for its economic reforms.
"As a comrade and neighbor, we are happy to see this," Xi said.
Quang is in Beijing to attend a weekend conference on an ambitious scheme proposed by Xi to build a new Silk Road connecting China to Asia, Europe and beyond through massive infrastructure investment.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)