SINGAPORE • United States President Barack Obama has called China's approach to handling its territorial spats in the South China Sea "the old style of might makes right".
He said Chinese President Xi Jinping had told him it was not China's intention to militarise some areas of dispute and that the US would test Beijing's sincerity on this.
Noting the White House's "constructive relationship" with Beijing in an interview televised last night, he dismissed the notion of going to war with China, although the US has challenged China's territorial claims in the contested sea in recent months with air and sea patrols close to islands China claims.
"We believe very much in a peaceful, rising China," Mr Obama told Channel NewsAsia in the interview that took place last Tuesday on the sidelines of the US-Asean summit in Sunnylands, California.
"But there are areas of genuine tension. South China Sea is an example of where we think China is resorting to the old style of might makes right, as opposed to working through international law and international norms to establish claims, and to resolve disputes," he added.
China has been building artificial islands on disputed reefs and setting up airstrips and other infrastructure on them. It recently deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel chain, according to reports last week.
China lays claim to most of the South China Sea, also claimed in parts by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
"President Xi, when he was in the Rose Garden after meeting with me, affirmed that China did not want to militarise some of these areas of dispute," said Mr Obama, referring to their meeting at the White House last September.
"And so we will continue to test whether China is sincere with respect to these efforts."
The Sunnylands summit is seen as a US attempt to deepen ties with Asean. During the interview, Mr Obama denied that he is using Asean as a counterweight to China. Instead, he said, the US sees the region as dynamic and growing, and part of a wider Asia-Pacific region where more and more economic activity will be centred.
"And we want to make sure that the United States, as an Asian-Pacific power, has partners who are interested like we are in promoting the kind of rule-based order that has promoted prosperity and security for decades now," he said.
"And if you look at Singapore, it's just one small example, a small island nation with no natural resources," he added. "But because it has been able to work within this rule-based system, because it has invested in its people, because of sound management and governance, it has emerged as one of the wealthiest per capita nations not just in the region but in the world. And we are seeing that kind of development in all the Asean countries."