East Asia Summit opens with maritime stand-off in the South China Sea in the spotlight

Asia-Pacific leaders in a family photo during the East Asia Summit at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 22, 2015.
Asia-Pacific leaders in a family photo during the East Asia Summit at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 22, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Asia-Pacific leaders opened a final summit on Sunday (Nov 22) with attention expected to swing back to the maritime stand-off in the South China Sea, closing a marathon week of diplomacy largely overshadowed by the recent jihadist attacks.

Heads of government from 18 countries including the United States, China, India, Russia, Japan and nations in South-east Asia are meeting for the annual East Asia summit, this year hosted by Malaysia.

The Kuala Lumpur diplomatic-political meetings follow a trade-related forum in Manila earlier in the week that included many of the same leaders.

The annual season of summitry has so far been dominated by expressions of concern and calls for action over the extremist attacks in Paris and Mali, and bombings in Lebanon.

Sunday's gathering brings China to the same table as rival claimants to the South China Sea, plus US President Barack Obama, who in Manila called on Beijing to halt its push to expand tiny atolls into fully-fledged islands.

China's island-building is aimed at reinforcing its toehold in the strategic sea but has sparked concern of a Chinese territorial grab.

Mr Obama met on Saturday (Nov 21) with counterparts from Asean and they issued a joint statement stressing the need to maintain freedom of navigation and over-flight rights in the South China Sea.

Mr Obama also backed Asean's calls for progress with China on agreeing on a code of conduct at sea to prevent conflict.

China has been accused of dragging its feet on the code - which could limit its freedom of action at sea - while it works to turn its disputed claims into a fait accomplit.

"For the sake of regional stability, claimants should halt reclamation, new construction, and militarisation of disputed areas," Mr Obama said on Saturday.

Washington has repeatedly warned that traffic through the South China Sea, a key conduit for world trade, could be threatened by China's moves.

It recently sent US naval vessels to the region to stress the right to free passage, a move that angered Beijing.

China insists on sovereignty over virtually all the resource-endowed South China Sea, which is also claimed in part by a handful of other countries.

South-east Asian foreign ministers who met last Friday in Kuala Lumpur issued a joint statement saying they were "seriously concerned" over the land reclamation.