US-Asean summit: Obama to warn China against 'bullying' over disputes

US President Barack Obama participates in the US-ASEAN Summit at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Nov 21, 2015.
US President Barack Obama participates in the US-ASEAN Summit at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Nov 21, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • United States President Barack Obama will deliver a tough message to China during a summit with South-east Asian countries next week, that disputes in the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully and not with a big nation "bullying" smaller neighbours, the White House said.

Mr Obama will also address North Korea's "provocations" - a nuclear test last month and a rocket launch over the weekend - when he hosts the leaders of Asean in California next Monday and Tuesday, aides said on Tuesday.

Mr Ben Rhodes, Mr Obama's deputy national security adviser, said the President will reiterate that territorial disputes over the area, where China and several South-east Asian states have conflicting and overlapping claims, must be handled through negotiations, consistent with international norms.

Though China will not be represented, Mr Obama's aides made clear that Beijing's actions in the South China Sea, where it has proceeded with island-building that US officials suspect could be turned to military use, will be one of the focal points of the summit at the Sunnylands estate near Palm Springs, California.

"The President will call on all claimants to halt land reclamation, construction of new facilities and to carry out no militarisation of outposts in the South China Sea," Mr Obama's top Asia adviser Dan Kritenbrink told reporters during a conference call previewing the Asean talks.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) of world trade is shipped every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

Mr Rhodes said part of Mr Obama's message at the summit would be the need to "avoid efforts to resolve those disputes through one nation, bigger nation, bullying a smaller one", uphold freedom of navigation and avoid "inadvertent and unnecessary" military action in the South China Sea.

A US Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of an island claimed by China and two other states in the South China Sea in late January, to counter what Washington deems unacceptable efforts to limit freedom of navigation, prompting an angry reaction from Beijing.

President Obama will specifically discuss with South-east Asian leaders his concerns about China's recent test flights on a newly constructed runway on Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands, Mr Rhodes said.

But even as Mr Obama seeks to reassure South-east Asian leaders of his resolve, he is expected to face divisions within the 10-nation bloc on how far they are willing to go in angering China. The Philippines and Vietnam have taken a harder line, while Cambodia and Laos are more reluctant to confront Beijing.

Mr Obama will also update South-east Asian leaders on efforts to increase international pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes, a process that the US officials said China had every reason to assist. "We approach China on the basis that we have a shared interest in the principle of denuclearisation and avoiding an escalation on the Korean peninsula," Mr Rhodes said.

But China and the US have not entirely seen eye to eye on how strong the response should be to North Korea, with Washington urging punitive measures and Beijing stressing the need for dialogue.

Separately, the US and India have held talks about conducting joint naval patrols that an American defence official said could include the South China Sea, a move that would likely anger Beijing.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'US-Asean summit: Obama to warn China against 'bullying' over disputes'. Print Edition | Subscribe