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Asean leaders concerned over China militarization

President Barack Obama, center, delivers opening remarks at the plenary session meeting of ASEAN, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. Sitting with Obama are, left to right, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, Laos President Choummaly Sayasone, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

RANCHO MIRAGE, California – Southeast Asian leaders have expressed concern over China’s militarization of the South China Sea during Monday’s US-ASEAN Summit here with President Barack Obama, a Cabinet official said.

“In their discussions, the leaders expressed collective concern over continued militarization in the South China Sea, which they recognized as a core issue in region,” Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said.

This was contained in a note Coloma sent to Manila-based reporters who covered Aquino’s final attendance at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), this year a special one because it is being held in the US and hosted by the Americans for the first time.

Officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), however, didn’t say who were the ASEAN leaders who conveyed their resistance to Beijing’s move to build artificial islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Coloma described this to be a “summary of the highlights of the Day 1 of the Summit as provided by the DFA.”  

Without referring to who among the ASEAN leaders spoke, Coloma – who also attended the meetings with Aquino – related the “leaders exchanged views during a retreat that focused on promoting regional prosperity through innovation and entrepreneurship.”

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Then during the dinner with Obama, the main topic was “regional strategic outlook.”

“At the working dinner, the President spoke on the importance of upholding the rule of law and peaceful resolution of disputes in the region,” Coloma said, quoting the DFA.

“There was also concern expressed over unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the region through island building, construction activities and test flights. In this regard, the crucial importance of freedom of navigation and over flight was highlighted,” he said.

“The importance of ASEAN solidarity and centrality and close cooperation and consultation in upholding regional peace and stability was emphasized.”

Coloma added one thing that was “established” is that “ASEAN should speak with one voice to ensure that all parties modify their behavior to conform with the rule of law and ensure the preservation of status quo.”  

“It was noted that this remains crucial for promoting respect for international law and norms for the management of regional tensions and in building regional security architecture,” Coloma said.

Obama told the summit that a policy of his administration was to play a “larger and long-term role” in ensuring stability, not just in the Asia- Pacific region, but also in keeping the peace in the Southeast Asian bloc.

“Earlier in my presidency I decided that the US as a Pacific nation would rebalance our foreign policy and play a larger and long-term role in the Asia Pacific,” Obama told the 10 heads of state of ASEAN at Sunnylands estate here during their first retreat.

Obama said his policy has been “included in the engagement with Southeast Asia and ASEAN, which is central to the region’s peace and prosperity into our shared goal of building a regional order where all nations play by the same rules.” 

“As part of our deeper engagement, I am proud to be the first US President to meet with leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries. This summit marks our seventh meeting,” Obama told the 10 Asian leaders.

“With your invitation, the United States joined the East Asia Summit and together we’ve made it the region’s leading forum for addressing political and security challenges,” he said.

Obama made seven ASEAN visits in his two four-year terms. He will step down by yearend after elections in November.

“At our last meeting in Kuala Lumpur (November 2015), we forged a new strategic partnership and our sustained engagement is delivering country results that benefit all of us, momentum that we can build on here at this summit,” Obama said.

Freedom of navigation assured

At the same time, Obama congratulated the 10 leaders for their economic cooperation through the ASEAN integration, and reminded them as well that US boosted trade in the region by as much as 55 percent.

“Here at this summit, we can build on this progress and do more to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation so the growth and development is sustainable and inclusive and benefits all people,” he said of the ASEAN integration that took effect last December.

“The region is now our fourth largest goods trading partner including US exports that support more than 500,000 American jobs. US companies have been the largest source of foreign investment in ASEAN,” Obama said.

“One of the many reasons that the region’s GDP has surged in recent years, lifting people from poverty into the middle class,” he stressed, partially claiming credit as well for the Philippines’ stable economy in nearly six years of the Aquino administration.

Obama then made a pitch for security in the region, apparently in reference to the bullying of China to small claimant-countries in Southeast Asia, among them Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, all of which have overlapping claims over the South China Sea.

“Together we can also continue to increase our security cooperation to meet shared challenges,” he said.

“In recent years, the US has increased our maritime security assistance to our allies and partners in the region, improving our mutual capabilities to protect lawful commerce and to respond to humanitarian crisis,” he maintained.

“Here at this summit, we can advance our shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms including freedom of navigation are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful legal means,” Obama said in supporting Manila’s case against Beijing.

The same is true with global terrorism where everybody’s help is needed.

“Together we can continue to do more around the world to meet transnational challenges that no one nation can meet alone.”  

“As we were reminded again by the attack in Jakarta last month, the scourge of terrorism demands that we stay vigilant, share more information and work cooperatively to protect our people,” Obama emphasized.

“Just as our nations work together to achieve a strong climate change agreement in Paris, now we need to implement that agreement and step up investment in clean, affordable energy including for developing countries,” he added, taking a pro-environment stance.

In the same meeting, Obama and the 10 ASEAN heads of state took up the rocket launch of North Korea, Middle East developments, Syrian conflict and terrorism.

“The leaders discussed ways to strengthen protection against digital recruitment of terrorism. They also expressed their strong views that the building of nuclear arsenal in North Korea is destabilizing and called for North Korea to denuclearize,” Coloma said.

“The leaders were confident of closer ASEAN-US cooperation in areas of common endeavor such as maritime security, economic engagement and people-to-people ties,” he said.

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