USA ASEAN summit.jpg
Photograph: EPA/NED REDWAY

The United States and south-east Asian countries called for "maritime security" but made no direct reference to China or the South China Sea, where Beijing has been pressing territorial disputes, after a summit Tuesday hosted by US President Barack Obama.

The two-day meeting with leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a California resort produced a joint statement declaring that the US and the 10 ASEAN members share a "commitment to maintain peace, security and stability in the region."

The leaders called for "unimpeded lawful maritime commerce" under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and urged "non-militarization and self-restraint" by countries in the region.

Four ASEAN members have unresolved territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea, which has important shipping lanes and potential oil and other natural resources. China claims almost the entire sea, overlapping with those ASEAN countries, and the disputes have overshadowed recent gatherings of the bloc.

Obama later said that Washington's "rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, including South-East Asia, will continue to be a foreign policy priority of my presidency." He noted that he was slated to visit Vietnam in May and to become the first president to visit Laos, which hosts the East Asia Summit in September.

Obama said the US and ASEAN share a "strong commitment to a regional order, where international rules and norms and the rights of all nations, large and small, are upheld."

He said the leaders 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."

Such allegations have been frequently directed at Beijing, though Obama made no direction mention of China.

"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," he said.

The US will continue to "strengthen" the maritime capabilities of countries in the region, Obama said.

The last meeting of ASEAN defense ministers failed reach a statement on the South China Sea. All 10 members must agree to produce a statement.

Countering terrorist threats to the region, strengthening democracy in ASEAN countries and economic cooperation with the US were also addressed in the summit.

Myanmar's outgoing president, Thein Sein, sent a vice president, 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 in January 2017.

The 10 countries - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - with a total population of 625 million launched the ASEAN Economic Community this year. The region's combined economy would be the seventh largest in the world.

The common market is meant to boost economic growth by lowering tariffs and allowing freer flows of capital, goods, services and skilled labour.

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