United States President Barack Obama yesterday pressed China to halt its efforts to build massive islands in the disputed South China Sea, as he expressed firm backing for actions by the Philippines to assert its claims over parts of this vital sea lane through arbitration.
"We agree on the need for bold steps to lower tensions, including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarisation of disputed areas in the South China Sea," Mr Obama told reporters shortly after holding talks with Philippine President Benigno Aquino.
The two met for an hour on the sidelines of the ongoing summit here of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Mr Obama also backed Manila's case against Beijing before an international arbitration court in The Hague.
In a 4,000-page plea, the Philippines accuses China of violating international laws by claiming nearly the entire 3.5 million sq km South China Sea - through which US$5 trillion (S$7.1 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year - even waters that are more than 1,600km away from its borders and nearer its smaller neighbours. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are also contesting China's claims.
"We're not claimants ourselves but we fully support a process in which, through international law, these issues are resolved," said Mr Obama.
Reacting to Mr Obama's comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the US "should stop playing up the South China Sea issue, stop heightening tensions in the South China Sea, and stop complicating disputes in the South China Sea".
Tensions in the South China Sea have escalated after China stepped up its land reclamation efforts in the Spratly archipelago, where it has so far created islands with airstrips and mall-size garrisons on seven reefs it occupies.
The US has sent a guided-missile destroyer and two B-52 bombers to these islands to assert "freedom of navigation" in the area, riling Beijing.