US, Asean hit China military buildup
RANCHO MIRAGE, California—US President Barack Obama on Tuesday promised that the United States would stand by its allies and partners in Southeast Asia and help strengthen their naval capabilities amid rising tensions in the heavily disputed South China Sea.
“I reiterated that the United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and we will support the right of all countries to do the same,” Obama told a news conference after the close of a summit with the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Obama said he and the Asean leaders agreed that disputes in the South China Sea must be resolved by legal means, including a case brought by the Philippines challenging China’s sweeping claims in the strategic waterway.
China has refused to take part in the proceedings at the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, but Obama said parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea were obligated to respect the ruling, expected by April or May.
Obama has been hosting the Asean leaders in the United States for the first time. That sends a subtle message to China that the United States remains an important force in the region.
Halt to China actions
“We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas,” Obama said, using words that appear in a US-Asean joint statement issued after the summit.
Asean diplomats said it was the first time a declaration from the bloc used the term “militarization,” apparently referring to China’s actions in the South China Sea.
But the leaders’ joint statement after two days of talks avoided direct reference to China, reflecting the careful path that Asean members tread in their diplomacy with the world powers.
The summit closed as Taiwan reported that China has deployed surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago in the South China Sea. China, Taiwan and Vietnam are disputing ownership of the island.
China insists it has historical right to virtually all of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea and has built seven artificial islands, some with airstrips, in the Spratly archipelago to assert its sovereignty.
Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts or all of the Spratlys in the middle of the South China Sea, which is crisscrossed by sea-lanes where $5 trillion in global trade passes every year and where islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting on top of vast oil and natural gas deposits.
Though not a claimant, the United States has spoken out against China’s conduct and has angered Beijing by sailing US Navy ships near some of the artificial islands to demonstrate freedom to sail there despite China’s territorial claims.
The United States has long argued for the maritime rights issue to be resolved peacefully and is looking for Asean to take a unified stance on the issue.
The joint statement did not refer directly to the arbitration case brought by the Philippines, but it does urge “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes” in resolving disputes.
The passage was from the remarks of President Aquino during the summit, calling all parties in the South China Sea dispute and the international community to abide by the decision of the UN arbitral tribunal on the Philippine case against China.
“It is crucial that Asean collectively and in a unified voice urge all countries to share with us full respect for the rule of law. For this purpose, it is especially important that we all commit to abide by the decision of the arbitral tribunal,” Mr. Aquino said.
“In this manner, we will avoid chaos in our relations and ensure greater stability, predictability and security,” he added.
Asked what he would do if China ignored a ruling in favor of the Philippines, President Aquino said he would like to think that China would be true to its word that it would abide by international law and wanted to preserve good relations with the rest of the global community.
Such a ruling could also temper China’s actions, he added.
Before issuing the statement, the Asean leaders discussed the South China Sea dispute among themselves, deciding eventually to veil the message that counters China’s provocative actions in the region but at the same time make it forceful, said a Southeast Asian diplomat.
Obama praised the united stand of the Asean and the United States on key principles outlined in the joint statement.
“When Asean speaks with a clear, unified voice, it can help advance security, opportunity and human dignity not only for the more than 600 million people across Asean, but also for people across the Asia-Pacific and around the world,” he said.
The casual summit tackled issues on multiple fronts, including economic concerns.
The leaders concluded the summit by posing for the traditional family photo on the plush lawn outside a historic residence at Sunnylands, the storied California desert estate where the talks were held.
Sunnylands is also where Obama had his first formal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
As the leaders walked off, Obama was heard thanking each one for attending. With reports from Leila B. Salaverria and AP
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