Obama reaffirms U.S. role in South China Sea

US President Barack Obama / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

US President Barack Obama / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

President Barack Obama said yesterday that he made it clear to Southeast Asian leaders gathered in Laos that the United States (U.S.) will continue to stand with the people of the region.

He has made re-balancing U.S. policy with a focus toward Southeast Asia a priority during his presidency, which ends in January. Obama said his hope and expectation is that his successor continues that effort.

“This is where the action’s going to be when it comes to commerce and trade, and ultimately creating U.S. jobs by being able to sell to this market,” Obama told reporters after a meeting of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations yesterday.

He said the group recognised the importance of a July international arbitration ruling dismissing China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and the importance for those claiming parts of the disputed region to not militarise those areas or occupy uninhabited islands.

“I reiterated that the United States will stand with allies and partners in upholding fundamental interests, among them the freedom of navigation and over-flight, lawful commerce that is not impeded, and peaceful resolution of disputes,” Obama said.

Regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, the U.S. president said his policy has been not to reward bad behaviour.

“It’s not as if we are looking for a problem or avoiding a willingness to engage diplomatically, but diplomacy requires that Pyongyang meet its international obligations.”

He pledged to continue pressuring the North Korean government while also putting in place defensive measures to ensure the U.S. and its allies are protected.

Another of his administration’s goals was to close the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Nearly 800 people have been held there since 2002, but about 60 detainees remain. Obama said he is not ready to concede that some will still be there when he leaves office.

“I continue to believe that Guantanamo is a recruitment tool for terrorist organisations, that it clouds and sours some of the counterterrorism cooperation that we need to engage in, and it’s not necessary and it’s hugely expensive for U.S. taxpayers.”

Obama’s meeting with ASEAN leaders was the eighth of his presidency. He has visited the region more than any of his predecessors. He said earlier yesterday that his repeat visits reflect Asia’s growing importance.

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