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Obama-ASEAN Talks Focus on South China Sea Tensions

  • Mary Alice Salinas

U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during a summit held at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, Feb. 16, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during a summit held at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, Feb. 16, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for "tangible steps" to lower tensions over ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

On the concluding day of talks with Southeast Asia leaders at a security and economic summit in California, Obama said the leaders affirmed that disputes should be resolved peacefully and through legal means.

"The United States and ASEAN are reaffirming our strong commitment to a regional order where international rules and norms and the rights of all nations, large and small, are upheld," Obama said.

He also called for a halt to further land reclamation, a reference to Beijing's massive effort to assert its claims over disputed territory through new construction and island-building.

The Sunnylands meeting was aimed at boosting entrepreneurship and innovation to attract trade and investment. Obama said there is strong support among ASEAN nations for improving the rule of law and the protection of intellectual property, and investing in education.

However, he also called for a return to civilian rule in Thailand, and said the United States would continue to stand with people across Southeast Asia who work to uphold the rule of law and improve human rights.​

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Obama is seeking to develop a leadership role with ASEAN, which the White House sees as key to the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific. The strategic shift toward the region is critical to America’s further security and economic prosperity and a vital counterbalance to China’s influence, the White House has said.

The ASEAN nations include Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. The dynamic and diverse region is experiencing robust growth and rising tensions, potentially affecting the global economy and security.

North Korea

The U.S. and ASEAN leaders are also addressing what role China can play in pressuring North Korea to end “provocative” actions, including Pyongyang’s recent rocket launch.

While China and the U.S. have disagreed on North Korea, the United States sees a common interest with China in ensuring the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts as he watches a long range rocket launch in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, Feb. 7, 2016.

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts as he watches a long range rocket launch in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, Feb. 7, 2016.

Young, rich region

The 10 ASEAN members comprise the third-largest economy in Asia, and the seventh-largest in the world, with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion. More than 65 percent of its 632 million people are younger than the age of 35.

Trade between the United States and ASEAN countries has increased by 55 percent in seven years, according to the White House.

Southeast Asia is now America’s fourth-largest goods trading partner, said the president, including U.S. exports that sustain more than 500,000 U.S. jobs. And he credited investment by U.S. companies in ASEAN for the region’s growing middle class.

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