- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Without mentioning China by name, President Obama offered an implicit reprimand of Beijing at the close of a two-day summit he hosted for Southeast Asian leaders Tuesday, suggesting China’s construction of artificial islands and naval bases in the contested South China Sea was destabilizing the region and vowing to keep the sea open to international traffic.

Mr. Obama said heads of state from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had “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.”

Mr. Obama’s own comments went notably further than a joint summit statement that called for territorial disputes in the region to be resolved based on international law and “without resorting to the threat or use of forces,” but did not single out Beijing for criticism.

The joint statement may still be read as progress for the Obama administration, since U.S. officials have been pushing ASEAN for years to speak a unified voice on the South China Sea territorial disputes.

But there was little evidence leaders gathered for the summit in Rancho Mirage, California — the same venue where Mr. Obama met one-on-one with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 — were prepared embrace specific measures to counter Beijing’s actions.

China, which is not a member of ASEAN, says it has a historical right to virtually all of the South China Sea and has built up seven artificial islands, some with airstrips, to back its claims. Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines have competing claims.

The Obama administration has increasingly spoken out against China’s conduct during recent years and has angered Beijing by sailing Navy ships near some of the artificial islands to assert the right to passage.

While Beijing argues that Washington is bent on exploiting ASEAN to expand the U.S. naval footprint in East Asia, Mr. Obama said Tuesday that the bulk of this week’s summit focus on ways to enhance trade and transparency between the U.S. and the 10-nation bloc, which would collectively represents the world’s seventh largest economy.

But he added that the U.S. “will continue to help our allies and partners strengthen their maritime capabilities” and that the U.S., itself, will “continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

Mr. Obama talked on other foreign policy challenges at the press conference closing the summit:

On Syria, Mr. Obama again insisted the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to insert Russian forces in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad was a sign of weakness and that it would be smarter for Moscow to help broker a political transition that might end the nation’s nearly 5-year-old civil war, despite recent battlefield gains by Mr. Assad’s forces.

“You send in your army when the horse you’re backing isn’t effective,” Mr. Obama said, adding that three-quarters of Syria remains beyond Mr. Assad’s control.

“Obviously, a bunch of rebels are not going to be able to compete with the hardware of the second most powerful military in the world,” he added. “But that doesn’t solve the problem of actually stabilizing Syria. And the only way to do that is to bring about some sort of political transition.”

On the recent beachhead established by Islamic State in Libya, Mr. Obama vowed to “go after [the Islamic State] wherever it appears,” but offered little to suggest U.S. forces are preparing to take action beyond occasional airstrikes, such as one in December that the Pentagon says killed the top Islamic State operative in Libya.

“We will continue to take actions where we got a clear operation and a clear target in mind,” Mr. Obama said. “And we are working with our other coalition partners to make sure that, as we see opportunities to prevent ISIS from digging in in Libya, we take them.”

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