The US and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to ensure "maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas," according to a statement at the end of a two-day summit in California.
"Any disputes between claimants in the region must be resolved peacefully, through legal means, such as the upcoming arbitration ruling under the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas," Mr. Obama said at a briefing, referring to a case brought by the Philippines to an international tribunal challenging China's claims to more than 80% of the South China Sea.
The language of the communique echoed previous ASEAN statements and made no direct reference to China -- the biggest trading partner with the group -- despite concern over its activities in the South China Sea. China has reclaimed 3,000 acres of land in the waters over two years, warned US military planes and ships from going near areas it controls and its ships have clashed with Vietnamese and Philippine fishing boats.
Asked before the end of the meeting if the language on the South China Sea would be stronger, Secretary of State John Kerry said leaders were "working through it." Neither China nor the US are members of ASEAN.
As the first gathering of ASEAN leaders on US soil concluded, Fox News reported that satellite images showed China had deployed an "advanced surface-to-air missile system" on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense said Wednesday in a text message it is aware that China has sent missiles to the island and will closely monitor this development. It urged parties to avoid escalating tensions in the area.
"While the Chinese foreign ministry could claim that the missiles are defensive in nature, their deployment certainly puts its claim that China wants to avoid further 'militarization' of the South China Sea into question," said Felix Chang, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
China deployed the missiles sometime after Feb. 3, Fox News reported. Last month, the US sent the USS Curtis Wilbur into waters near the islands to contest the "excessive" maritime claims of China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
"We will deploy necessary national defense facilities on the islands," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing on Tuesday before the Fox report. "It is an exercise of self-preservation and defense, a right granted by international law to sovereign states. It does not impede freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea that all countries are entitled to."
China has been expanding its island building in the Paracels, according to recent images posted on the Web site of The Diplomat magazine. They show dredging and filling at two new sites in the island chain about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Woody Island.
While Vietnam and the Philippines have been critics of China's assertiveness, non-claimant ASEAN states have been less willing to challenge it in a region increasingly dependent on the world's second-biggest economy.
"The problem for ASEAN is that as long as they operate by consensus, China can always count on Cambodia and Laos to veto any statement they don't like," said Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "It is not insignificant that they commit themselves to rules-based international norms, but it is pretty pro forma."
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung asked Mr. Obama to take "practical actions to put an end to all activities, especially large-scale construction of artificial islands and militarization," according to a posting on the government's Web site Tuesday.
China's official Xinhua News Agency on Wednesday warned against challenging its claims and said the US is not a spokesman for ASEAN.
"Washington should bear in mind that China will never turn a blind eye to any attempt that challenges its indisputable sovereignty," the commentary said. "Underestimation of China's resolve to defend its core interests would be a fatal mistake."
For his part, Philippine President Benigno S. C. Aquino III, speaking before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, said, "Yet, like all nations, we need to defend our rights. This is why we have accessed the channels available to us to try and resolve the issue in a manner that is both legal and peaceful."
Source: Business World