Territorial disputes will be central issue during President Obama's Asia visit

US President Barack Obama will address territorial disputes when he meets Asian leaders next week.
US President Barack Obama will address territorial disputes when he meets Asian leaders next week.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Territorial disputes will be a central issue when US President Barack Obama meets Asian leaders next week, the White House said on Thursday (Nov 12), but downplayed hopes for a "code of conduct" to ease tensions.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice said territorial claims in the South China Sea - which have put the United States in direct dispute with China - would feature prominently during Mr Obama's trip to the Philippines for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit and the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) meeting in Malaysia.

"This will be a central issue of discussion both at the East Asia Summit as well as at the Asean-US Summit (both in Kuala Lumpur) and the other engagements that we have throughout our visit to Asia," Ms Rice said.

That seemed at odds with China's insistence that an Asia-Pacific summit next week in Manila should not discuss rising tensions.

Beijing, along with several other Asian capitals, have a knot of claims to maritime territory.

But China's decision to reclaim and build on reefs and other bodies recently prompted the US Navy to send in guided missile destroyer the USS Lassen to within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the artificial islets in the Spratlys chain.

Besides China, the other claimants are the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan, with some of their claims overlapping.

During his trip to the Philippines, Mr Obama will tour a maritime facility, designed to underscore the US commitment to Philippine maritime security, amid talk of a fresh batch of US aid.

Manila recently won the right for an international panel to hear several territorial disputes with China. Beijing has so far ignored the proceedings.

Ms Rice said the US view "has always been that these disputes need to be resolved through peaceful, legal means."

"The establishment of and implementation of a code of conduct agreed among the leaders of the region, the states of the region and, in particular, the claimants would be a positive step forward," she added.

"But I don't expect it to be a concrete outcome of this particular visit."

Last week an Asia-Pacific defence ministers' meeting in Malaysia ended on a sour note as the United States and China butted heads over whether a final joint statement should mention the South China Sea.

Asked why Mr Obama was willing to attend so many Asia summits in short order, senior foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes said "when we're not at the table, we're on the menu."

The issue is likely to come up again in bilateral meetings with leaders from Canada, Australia, the Philippines and Malaysia.

During his visit to Malaysia, Mr Obama will also visit a refugee centre to highlight the migrant issue as a "global challenge."

"There are enormous refugees flows out of Syria into Europe. There are enormous refugee flows in Africa. There are enormous refugee flows in Asia," said Mr Rhodes.

"Malaysia hosts a very significant population of refugees, including a significant number of Rohingya who have had to leave (Myanmar)," he added.