President Barack Obama and leaders of Southeast Asian nations are wrapping up a two-day summit aimed at demonstrating U.S. seriousness about keeping a high profile in a region where a rising China has rattled American allies.
Obama and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will spend Tuesday discussing regional security issues. Hot topics include counterterrorism and China’s bold territorial claims to disputed waters of the South China Sea – moves that have sounded international alarms and heightened tensions with some association members.
The U.S. maintains these disputes should be resolved peacefully according to international law, a stance Obama emphasized Monday upon welcoming leaders of ASEAN’s 10-nation bloc: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.
“Here at this summit, we can advance our shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means,” Obama said, opening the first ASEAN-only summit held in the U.S.
China says it has a historical right to virtually all of the South China Sea and has built seven artificial islands -even including airstrips – to assert its sovereignty. Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines also claim land features in these potentially resource-rich international shipping lanes.
Though not a claimant, the U.S. has spoken out against China’s conduct and has angered Beijing by sailing Navy ships near some of the artificial islands in a show of support for its allies. The U.S. has argued for the maritime rights issue to be resolved peacefully and is looking for ASEAN to take a unified stance and call for the disputes to be resolved based on international law. But unity could be hard to come by; ASEAN has avoided criticizing China by name in joint statements issued at past summits.
The diverse group of countries includes governments aligned with either Washington or Beijing. Only four of its members are embroiled in disputes with China and Taiwan, a fact which sometimes leads to conflicting views on how to handle long-simmering rifts.
Summit statements in recent years have expressed concern over the escalating conflicts and called for freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed territories, but they have rarely gone into specifics.
The Philippines brought its territorial conflicts with China to international arbitration in early 2013 after Beijing refused to withdraw its ships from a disputed shoal under a U.S.-brokered deal. China has refused to participate, but nevertheless, an arbitration tribunal based in The Hague heard the case and is expected to rule this year.
Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Adviser, said Monday that negotiations were continuing on a potential joint statement that would cover a range of topics and not focus primarily on the South China Sea. She noted that past U.S.-ASEAN statements have underscored a commitment to resolving disputes peacefully, freedom of commerce and navigation, and rule of law.
On Tuesday the leaders were also expected to discuss counterterrorism. Obama mentioned the recent deadly attack in Indonesia that authorities blamed on militants linked to the Islamic State group. He said the “scourge of terrorism” demands that they stay vigilant, share information and work together to protect their citizens.
Obama was closing the summit with a news conference before returning to Washington.