US President Barack Obama welcomed leaders from south-east Asian nations to a California retreat centre Monday for talks centred on economic and security issues as part of his administration's broader focus on Asia.

The two days of talks with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are the first of their kind to be held on US soil and illustrate the nations' role as a "hub" within the region, White House officials said ahead of the meeting at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California.

In his opening remarks Obama described the meeting as a "landmark gathering” that signified "strong and enduring partnership” between US and ASEAN and between the US and each of the countries in the group.

He said ASEAN was central to the region's peace and prosperity and referred to increased security cooperation to "meet shared challenges." He also stressed the need to resolve disputes through "peaceful, legal means."

After citing the elections in Myanmar, he called on leaders to answer the aspirations of young people, mentioning human rights in that context.

Prior to the meeting Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the meeting was meant to send a signal that the US values ASEAN and that the US is going to be engaged in the region "to set clear rules of the road on the various issues of common interest that we share with them."

Obama plans to hold talks on the economy focused on promoting innovation and entrepreneurship and a working dinner.

Myanmar's outgoing president, Thein Sein, said last week he would not attend the summit as originally planned, and would send a vice president instead, after his party suffered an unexpectedly comprehensive defeat in the November elections.

Four of the countries attending are part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal agreed last year, which Obama hopes to shepherd through Congress before he leaves office.

Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, praised the stability of the region and said it was a driver of economic growth. He stressed the summit was not being held as a response to China, noting that each of the countries has their individual relations with Beijing.

On Tuesday the leaders will discuss security concerns, including terrorism and efforts by Islamic State to gain a foothold in the region, as well as the dispute over the South China Sea.

China claims almost the entire sea, overlapping with territory of several ASEAN nations, and the dispute has overshadowed recent gatherings of the bloc.

The California meeting "will provide leaders a forum to strengthen cooperation" under the new US-ASEAN strategic partnership on political, security, and economic issues, which was launched in November in Kuala Lumpur, the White House said when it announced the summit.

Also on the agenda are climate change, combating pandemic diseases, good governance and the importance of democratic reforms.

Obama's last year in office marks a "year of significant attention on the Asia Pacific," with planned trips to Japan in May and China and Laos in September.

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