Obama condemns China's reclamation

United States President Barack Obama has condemned Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea, weighing in on a diplomatic row over an issue that has been brewing between Washington and Beijing for weeks.

On Monday, Mr Obama was asked for his views on Chinese activities in the disputed waterways during a question-and-answer session with 75 young leaders from South-east Asia. They are 18- to 35-year-olds working in areas like civic engagement and sustainable development.

Mr Obama said China's actions were counterproductive and stressed that the US would continue to support countries "prepared to work with us to establish and enforce norms and rules that can continue growth and prosperity in the region".

"The truth is, China is going to be successful. It's big, it's powerful, its people are talented and they work hard and it may be that some of their claims are legitimate," he said at the Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative event at the White House.

"But they shouldn't just try and establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way. If, in fact, their claims are legitimate, people will recognise it."

He reiterated previous statements warning China and other claimant states that provocations could derail Asia's economic success. Said Mr Obama: "If... suddenly, conflicts arise and claims are made based on how big the country is and how powerful the navy is, instead of based on law, then I think Asia will be less prosperous and the Pacific region will be less prosperous."

The South China Sea aside, Mr Obama also fielded questions on a wide range of regional issues. He pushed for the completion of a high-quality Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal that includes several ASEAN countries, called for an end to the discrimination against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, and stressed the importance of transparency in Malaysia's handling of the sodomy case involving opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

"As a general rule, I don't comment on individual cases in this country, much less in some other country, because I think it is important for the legal system to work," he said, when asked about Anwar's conviction for sodomy.

"I do know that it is important, if an opposition leader who is well known has been charged with a crime, that that process of how that is adjudicated and how open it is and how clear the evidence is, that that is all subject to scrutiny. Because what you don't want is a situation where the legitimacy of the process is questioned. That has an adverse impact on democracy as a whole."

Asked where he would want to be if he were a Rohingya, Mr Obama said: "I would want to stay in the land where my parents had lived, but I'd want to make sure that my government was protecting me and that people were treating me fairly."

This article was first published on June 3, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.