U.S. President Barack Obama sternly warned China Monday that its land reclamation projects in the South China Sea are counterproductive and a threat to Southeast Asian prosperity.
He told a group of young Southeast Asian leaders visiting the United States that "it may be that some" of China's territorial claims to the waters are legitimate.
"But they shouldn't just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way," President Obama said as he thrust his elbows outward in front of a lectern at the White House.
The American leader said the United States does not have a territorial claim to the region, but wants the disputes over the waters China and other countries are claiming to be settled peacefully.
"We're not parties in the dispute," he said. "But we do have a stake in making sure that they're resolved peacefully, diplomatically in accordance with internationally established standards. And for that reason we think that land reclamation, aggressive actions by any party in that area are counterproductive."
He said the U.S. will work with any country willing "to establish and enforce norms and rules that can continue growth and prosperity in the region."
Obama added, "The truth is that China is going to be successful. It's big. It's powerful. Its people are talented and they work hard."
The U.S. and China have increasingly clashed in recent days over Beijing's artificial island-building, turning underwater land into airfields.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told an international security summit in Singapore on Saturday that the U.S. opposes "any further militarization" of the disputed lands, after it spotted two large motorized artillery vehicles that China had placed on one of the artificial islands.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the U.S. was "making absurd remarks about China's long-established sovereignty and rights, stirring up trouble and slinging accusations regarding China's appropriate and rational construction activities on its islands. China resolutely opposes this.''
Obama answered a variety of questions about Southeast Asia and his philosophy of governing from some of the 75 young leaders ages 18 to 35 who are completing a five-week visit to the U.S. They are part of a leadership program he established for young people from the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to promote democracy and economic growth in the region.
One of the visitors asked Mr. Obama how he wants history to recall his presidency, which will end in January 2017.
"Fondly, I hope," Obama joked.
Obama's critics often claim that he has weakened U.S. power overseas. But he contended, "We have put our international relationships on very strong footing."
He said the Muslim Rohingya minority have been discriminated against by the Myanmar government, leading him to offer two pieces of advice for countries in Southeast Asia and across the world.
Obama said countries are only successful if they do not divide themselves along religious and ethnic lines, and do not discriminate against women.