RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif, Feb 17.—President Barack Obama concluded a two-day summit with Southeast Asian leaders by promising to help allies in the region counter China’s expanding territorial and maritime claims.
Mr. Obama said in a news conference on Tuesday at the sprawling Sunnylands resort in California that the leaders had discussed the need for “tangible steps” to lower tensions in the South China Sea, “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,” Mr. Obama said. “We will continue to help our allies and partners strengthen their maritime capabilities.”
All of the prescriptions were aimed at Beijing, which has engaged in massive dredging operations to build up artificial islands and develop them for military uses, among others, while claiming disputed territory in the region.
The president also said he stressed to the leaders the importance of democracy and human rights.
The summit, which began Monday, took place amid rising concerns over territorial disputes and maritime security in the South China Sea and growing tensions between Washington and Beijing over how to respond to recent aggression from North Korea.
The gathering was largely designed to further Mr. Obama’s efforts to counter China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific by strengthening U.S. relations with other countries in the region.
The threat of Islamic State was for the first time a key point of discussion at the summit following a recent terror attack in Jakarta.
Mr. Obama plans to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos by attending a summit there this year. The White House announced that this spring Mr. Obama will visit Vietnam, one of the 10 Southeast Asian countries that is part of the group known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean.
The forum served as an opportunity for Mr. Obama to highlight one of his top policy goals this year: a new trade pact with Asia.
The White House hopes the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, will be approved by Congress this year, but its success is uncertain. The pact doesn’t include China.
Mr. Obama announced an initiative called U.S.-Asean Connect, which he said is designed to improve economic coordination among the group’s member nations.
Mr. Obama is working to secure his legacy on Asia policy before leaving office in January.
“I’m confident that whoever the next president may be will build on the foundation that we’ve laid, because there’s strong, sustained bipartisan support for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific region,” Mr. Obama said.
Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s national-security adviser, said Monday the administration expects China to sign on to “significant” new sanctions against North Korea following Pyongyang’s recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
Source — Wall Street Journal