United States President Barack Obama has been turning up the heat on China over its increasingly assertive posture in the South China Sea, two days into his five-day diplomatic push to assure allies that a "pivot" to Asia remains a core US policy.
In talks with Philippine President Benigno Aquino on the sidelines of the ongoing Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit here, Mr Obama demanded that China halt its efforts to transform seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the southern half of the South China Sea into islands.
These islands have raised tensions in the region, as they are seen as China's efforts to exert control over a vital sea lane.
STANDING BY ALLY
As a treaty ally, we have a rock-solid commitment to the defence of the Philippines.
And part of our goal is to continue to help our treaty partners build up capacity, to make sure that the architecture of both defence work, but also humanitarian work, and other important activities in the region are coordinated more effectively.
US PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
Pentagon officials have also expressed concern that this chain of islands is a first step in a Chinese push deeper into the Pacific, nearer major US military real estate in Guam and Hawaii.
Mr Obama said "bold steps" were needed to "lower tensions", as he pressed China to stop further reclamation in the South China Sea.
Since its land reclamation efforts began in December 2013, China has reclaimed more than 1,170ha of land, 17 times more than the other claimants combined over the past 40 years.
On Tuesday, Mr Obama said the US would provide its allies in South- east Asia US$259 million (S$369 million) in "maritime security assistance" in two years. He did not mention China, but he made the announcement shortly after boarding a former US cutter now used as the Philippine Navy's flagship that patrols waters in the South China Sea and had figured in a confrontation with Chinese warships in 2012.
Mr Obama also sought to shore up Philippine resolve to defend its territories by pledging to hand over a coast guard cutter and a research ship "to help map its territorial waters and bolster its navy's ability to conduct patrols".
"This is an occasion for me to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the security and defence of the Philippines," he said yesterday at a joint press conference with Mr Aquino, whom he described as a "valued and trusted friend" to the US.
"As a treaty ally, we have a rock- solid commitment to the defence of the Philippines. And part of our goal is to continue to help our treaty partners build up capacity, to make sure that the architecture of both defence work, but also humanitarian work, and other important activities in the region are coordinated more effectively," added Mr Obama.
The Philippines itself, despite a pledge to keep the South China Sea off the official Apec agenda to appease China, has been busy meeting allies behind closed doors to secure deals meant to buttress its military, one of the region's weakest.
It is concluding arms deals with Japan and South Korea, and joint defence partnerships with Vietnam and Australia. Manila will reportedly conclude a deal today that will allow Japan to supply the Philippines with planes that it can use to monitor Chinese movements in the South China Sea.