US says no to island reclamation, militarization of disputed waters

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 17 2016 11:55 PM

US President Barack Obama waves during a group photo at the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California February 16, 2016. Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

CALIFORNIA - US President Barack Obama in no uncertain terms stood with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in calling for the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, a halt to reclamation and militarization, and the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea.

This, as he faced the media after the US-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands, California and amid reports of a Chinese missile deployment in disputed waters.

"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. We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas. Freedom of navigation must be upheld and lawful commerce should not be impeded," Obama said.

"I reiterated that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, and we will support the right of all countries to do the same. We will continue to help our allies and partners strengthen their maritime capabilities. And we discussed how any disputes between claimants in the region must be resolved peacefully, through legal means, such as the upcoming arbitration ruling under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Seas, which the parties are obligated to respect and abide by," he added.

Aside from security matters, Obama revealed their engagement on the economic front.

"We agreed to do more together to encourage the entrepreneurship and innovation that are at the heart of modern, competitive economies. We had an excellent discussion with a number of pioneering business leaders who reiterated the recipe for attracting trade and investment -- rule of law, transparency, protection of intellectual property, efficient customs, modern infrastructure, e-commerce and the free flow of information, support for small- and medium-sized businesses, and perhaps most importantly, investment in people -- investment in strong schools to educate and train the next generation.

"I affirmed our strong support for the ASEAN Community and pledged that the United States will continue to be a partner in ASEAN's efforts to integrate economies and reduce barriers to trade and investment. I’m also announcing a new initiative -- U.S.-ASEAN Connect -- a network of hubs across the region to better coordinate our economic engagement and connect more of our entrepreneurs, investors and businesses with each other," he said.

The US President also held out hope for the expansion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) across ASEAN.

"We're also doing more to help aspiring innovators in the region learn English, the international language of business. And I reiterated that the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- which includes four ASEAN members -- can advance economic integration across ASEAN and set stronger rules for trade throughout the Asia Pacific. To that end, we've launched a new effort to help all ASEAN countries understand the key elements of TPP, as well as the reforms that could eventually lead to them joining," he said.

There were also discussions on human rights. "Third, I made it clear that the United States will continue to stand with those across Southeast Asia who are working to advance rule of law, good governance, accountable institutions and the universal human rights of all people. We continue to encourage a return to civilian rule in Thailand. We will sustain our engagement with the people of Myanmar as a new president is selected, and as they work to implement the ceasefire agreement and move forward with national reconciliation. Across the region, we’ll continue to stand with citizens and civil society and defend their freedom of speech, of assembly and of the press. No one, including those in political opposition, should ever be detained or imprisoned simply for speaking their mind. That only stymies progress, only makes it harder for countries to truly thrive and prosper."

There was also greater cooperation in fighting terrorism and transnational challenges.

"The United States and ASEAN are doing more to deal with transnational challenges together. I offered our assistance to help ASEAN counties better leverage Interpol data to prevent the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. We agree that implementing the Paris climate change agreement, including helping developing countries adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change, will be critical and it will enable them to leap ahead to new and affordable clean energy," said Obama.

"As we pursue our sustainable development goals, we're launching a new competition -- an innovation challenge to encourage students across ASEAN to develop new solutions to boost agriculture. We’re moving ahead with our Global Health Security Agenda to prevent future epidemics, and I pledged additional U.S. assistance to help ASEAN combat the horror of human trafficking."

Obama announced his coming trips to the region.

"I believe this summit has put the U.S.-ASEAN partnership on a new trajectory that will carry us to even greater heights in the decades ahead. America’s foreign policy rebalance to the Asia Pacific, including Southeast Asia, will continue to be a foreign policy priority of my presidency. I look forward to visiting Vietnam for the first time in May and to becoming the first U.S. President to visit Laos when it hosts the East Asia Summit in September," he said.

Obama said he does not think his rebalance strategy will be changed by whoever will be elected as his successor.

"I'm confident that whoever the next President maybe, will build on the foundation that we've laid, because there's strong, sustained, bipartisan support for American engagement in the Asia Pacific region. And through our Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, our investment in young people, in their business success, and civil society and grassroots leaders across the region I believe will further bind us together in a spirit of partnership and friendship for many years to come."

Obama also took the opportunity to thank the Annenberg Foundation for hosting them at Sunnylands.

"Let me begin by thanking the Annenberg Foundation Trust, and everyone here at beautiful Sunnylands and the people of Rancho Mirage for their incredible hospitality these past two days. I have hosted foreign leaders here before. It's quite another to host leaders from 10 nations at the same time. And I want to thank everybody who helped make the summit such a success," he said.

Obama thanked the ASEAN for the last 2 days. "For 50 years, leaders and people across Southeast Asia have worked together through ASEAN to advance their mutual security, prosperity and dignity. For decades, the United States has been a proud partner with ASEAN. And this summit has built on the unprecedented cooperation we've forged over the past seven years, as I described yesterday. This spirit -- working together on behalf of mutual interests, in mutual respect -- guided our work over the past two days. And so I especially want to thank my fellow leaders from the ASEAN countries for being here, for their commitment and for the progress that we've made together."

"One of my main messages over the past two days has been the commitment of the United States to ASEAN and its people. That commitment is and will remain strong and enduring. With our Strategic Partnership, we have a framework to guide our ties for decades to come," he said.

Obama reiterated the US commitment to ASEAN centrality and unity.

"Here at Sunnylands, we agreed to a number of key principles, including the principle that ASEAN will continue to be central -- in fact, indispensable -- to peace, prosperity and progress in the Asia Pacific. When ASEAN speaks with a clear, unified voice, it can help advance security, opportunity and human dignity not only for the more than 600 million people across ASEAN, but for people across the Asia Pacific and around the world. And I’m pleased that, here at this summit, ASEAN’s strong voice allowed us to make progress on multiple fronts," Obama said.