Obama holds first summit in US with Southeast Asian leaders

President Barack Obama, center, delivers opening remarks at the plenary session meeting of ASEAN, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. Sitting with Obama are, left to right, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, Laos President Choummaly Sayasone, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama delivers opening remarks at the plenary session meeting of ASEAN, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. (Associated Press)

President Barack Obama and leaders of Southeast Asian nations are wrapping up a two-day summit intended to show solidarity and U.S. seriousness about staying engaged in a region where a rising China has rattled American allies.

Obama and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were spending Tuesday discussing regional security issues. They include counterterrorism and China’s 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 in 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. The symbolism of the meeting is likely to be more significant than any outcome.

Le Luong Minh, a Vietnamese politician and chairman of the association, said the U.S. is one of ASEAN’s “important dialogue partners.” He called the summit an “excellent opportunity to exchange our views” on important issues.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said ASEAN leaders hope Obama’s attention and priority toward the Southeast Asian grouping will be continued and sustained by future U.S. presidents, Malaysia’s Bernama news agency reported. He said 10 ASEAN leaders acknowledged that the grouping’s relationship with the U.S. was as important as its relationship with China.

China says it has a historical right to virtually all of the South China Sea and has built seven artificial islands, including with 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 either with Washington or Beijing. Only four of its members are embroiled in disputes with China and Taiwan, leading to sometimes conflicting views on how to handle long-simmering rifts.

ASEAN nations typically tread carefully, preferring not to alienate either world power. While nations may look to the U.S. to help stand up to China’s assertive behavior, they still count China as their main trading partner.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told a working dinner of the leaders on Monday night that China’s role in the region is expected to grow, and that from time to time its larger presence could lead to frictions, uncertainties and anxieties, including on the South China Sea, but these issues must be managed peacefully to preserve regional stability and security, Singapore-based Channel News Asia reported.

ASEAN 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 to 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 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 negotiations were continuing on a potential joint statement that would cover various topics and not focus primarily on the South China Sea.

Past U.S.-ASEAN statements have underscored a commitment to resolving disputes peacefully, freedom of commerce and navigation, and rule of law, she said.

The leaders were expected Tuesday to also 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.

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