Asean summit 2016 california
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses to answer a question during a press conference following the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations Reuters

US President Barack Obama and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) discussed the rising tensions in the South China Sea at the summit in California, but the joint statement did not mention China.

The leaders said in the statement, issued after two-day discussions, that disputes should be resolved through legal and peaceful means.

Obama said the Asean leaders agreed on forming a regional order where international rules and norms and the rights of all nations are upheld.

"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," Obama said.

"When ASEAN speaks with a clear and unified voice, it can help advance security, opportunity and human dignity."

The US has strategic interests in the South China Sea and the broader region and it offers a counter balance against Beijing's influence in the disputed waters.

As the Asean-US summit got underway -- the first such summit to be held on US soil -- Chinese state media had criticized the US move in thinly veiled barbs.

"The Americans are talking up this summit, with some media even calling for a "Sunnylands Principle," which exaggerates the importance of the meeting," Global Times said.

The Chinese media said most of the Asean members have strategic ties and trade relations with Beijing and they will be cautious over aligning with the US in Washington's push to create a unified stand in the South China Sea dispute.

But Global Times said this narrative of common ground is just "another piece of rhetoric" used by the US to hide its intention of countering China adding that Washington will not be able to create a new "US-led regional order" in Southeast Asia.

The conflict

The overlapping claims of sovereignty over two island chains by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei has made the South China Sea a sensitive region.

China lays claim to both the island chains stating that these were integral part of the empire from ages. In 1947 China formalised the claims by issuing a map showing the islands in its territory. Vietnam which contested China's claims saying its rule over Paracels and Spratlys dates back to the 17th century, however, lost the military tussle over the island chains to China.

In Taiwan's case, the claim is a bit more complicated. Technically its territorial claims within the U-shaped line around South China Sea are same as that of China's but Taipei shies away from aggressively asserting the claims.

The US has adopted a stern line against China's land reclamation, construction and militarisation in these islands but China staunchly defends its claim to sovereignty in the region.

The US too has US military facilities in Southeast Asia, in Philippines and Thailand. It also has stationed its Poseidon sub-hunters and electronic warfare platforms in Malaysia and Singapore. In the regional geopolitical power balance the US presence in the region is crucial for its allies but it is an irritant in diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington.

Strategic and economic importance

-- The mostly uninhabited islands in South China Sea are of crucial strategic importance. The two major island chains -- the Paracels and the Spratlys -- are thought to harbour natural resources around them. China hopes the oil and natural gas reserves in the region could ensure its energy security.

--The sea is also a major trading route through which ship-borne trade worth $5 trillion passes every year.

-- For energy hungry China the sea routes in South China Sea are crucial as most of its imported oil flows through these routes.

-- Control over the territory allows Beijing to prevent the US from expanding its sphere of influence in the region.