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ASEAN nations tread carefully as Obama calls for South China Sea resolution

President Obama has called for a "peaceful resolution" to maritime disputes at the ASEAN summit. His statement comes as the Taiwanese Defense Ministry said Beijing deployed surface-to-air missiles in the South China Sea.

US President Barack Obama and leaders of Southeast Asia concluded a "Special Leaders Summit" - the first of its kind in the US - on Tuesday, calling for "tangible steps" to "peacefully resolve" disputes in the South China Sea.

"The United States and ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] are reaffirming our strong commitment to a regional order where international rules and norms and the rights of all nations, large and small, are upheld," Obama said at a press conference at the end of the summit.

"We 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," he added.

While China says it has a historic right over the South China Sea, ASEAN members that include the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei also claim land features in the strategic thoroughfare for international shipping.

Surface-to-air missile system

Obama's statement came on the heels of a report that China had deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system on one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Taiwan Defense Ministry spokesman Major General David Lo on Wednesday told the Reuters news agency that missile batteries were placed on an island that has also been claimed by Taipei.

"Interested parties should work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea region and refrain from taking unilateral measures that would increase tensions," Lo said.

Beijing has built several artificial islands in the disputed area, some with airstrips, in a bid to assert its sovereignty.

In 2013, the Philippines brought its claims against Beijing to an international court, resulting in an arbitral tribunal based in The Hague agreeing to hear the case. A decision is expected later this year, despite China refusing to participate in the proceedings.

'Through legal means'

The US and ASEAN affirmed a "shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force," said a joint statement.

The nations' statement did not name China, although Obama touched on the "upcoming" ruling from The Hague.

"Any disputes between claimants must be resolved peacefully through legal means such as the upcoming arbitration ruling under the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas, which the parties are obligated to respect and abide by," Obama said.

ls/cmk (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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