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China in focus as Obama hosts ASEAN leaders at California summit

US President Barack Obama joins a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at Sunnylands estate on February 15 in California. Photo: AFP

US President Barack Obama gathered leaders from Southeast Asia on Monday in a California retreat to strengthen trade ties and form a common stance on the South China Sea, with talks focused on how to counterbalance China's increasing muscle in the region.

Obama hosted representatives from 10 ASEAN countries at Sunnylands, a sprawling resort where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

The meeting was designed to demonstrate Washington's role as a counterweight to Beijing and as an eager trading partner with ASEAN members and the White House sees this summit as an opportunity to champion Obama's "pivot to Asia", before the president leaves the White House in January 2017.

"As president I've insisted that even as the United States confronts urgent threats around the world, our foreign policy also has to seize on new opportunities, and few regions present more opportunity in the 21st century than the Asia-Pacific," Obama said opening the summit.

"That is why early in my presidency I decided that the United States, as a Pacific nation, would rebalance our foreign policy and play a larger and long term role in the Asia-Pacific."

On Monday the leaders were slated to focus on economic issues, including discussion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which includes four ASEAN members: Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. Others are interested in joining, and the White House wants to make sure the pact takes effect.

The conversation on Tuesday shifts to regional security issues, including South China Sea and counterterrorism.

China says it has a historical right to virtually all of the South China Sea and has built seven artificial islands, including with airstrips, to assert its sovereignty.

The US has angered Beijing by sailing Navy ships near some of the artificial islands. It has argued for the maritime rights issue to be resolved peacefully and is looking for ASEAN to take a unified stance by calling for the disputes to be resolved based on international law.

However, ASEAN is not expected to take the same stance as the US, as there is no consensus among the bloc over their China policy.

Many ASEAN countries traditionally take a neutral stance in the tussle between powers like the US and China and are more interested in economic cooperation.

ASEAN members that dispute China's claims, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, may want US guarantees about their interests in the region, but other nations do not want to follow US orders and risk their diplomatic and economic ties with China, Zha Xiaogang, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the Global Times.

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