RANCHO MIRAGE, California — President Benigno S. Aquino III has underscored the importance of upholding the rule of law in resolving the territorial disputes in the South China Sea on the first day of the US-ASEAN Leaders Summit here.

US President Barack Obama is hosting the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for a special summit at Sunnylands, the historic Annenberg estate where Obama held a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in June 2013.

The US-ASEAN Summit commenced Monday, February 15. (California is 16 hours behind Manila.)

The summit is divided into two sessions covering the following topics: promoting an innovative, entrepreneurial ASEAN Economic Community; and protecting peace, prosperity, and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The leaders exchanged views during a retreat that focused on promoting regional prosperity through innovation and entrepreneurship and continued their discussions over a working dinner,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma, Jr. said, quoting the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on the highlights of the first day of the summit.

At the working dinner where the main topic was on the regional strategic outlook, Secretary Coloma said President Aquino “spoke on the importance of upholding the rule of law and peaceful resolution of disputes in the region.”

In their discussions, Coloma said President Obama and the ASEAN leaders expressed “collective concern over continued militarization in the South China Sea, which they recognized as a core issue in region.”

“There was also concern expressed over unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the region through island building, construction activities and test flights. In this regard, the crucial importance of freedom of navigation and overflight was highlighted,” he said.

The importance of ASEAN solidarity and centrality and close cooperation and consultation in upholding regional peace and stability was also emphasized during their discussions, according to Secretary Coloma.

“It was established that ASEAN should speak with one voice to ensure that all parties modify their behavior to conform with the rule of law and ensure the preservation of status quo,” he said.

“It was noted that this remains crucial for promoting respect for international law and norms for the management of regional tensions and in building regional security architecture,” he added.

China is asserting ownership of almost the whole South China Sea. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, also have overlapping claims in the disputed area.

Also during the US-ASEAN meeting, Secretary Coloma said the seriousness of the North Korean issue was discussed, as well as the developments in the Middle East, the Syrian conflict and efforts to combat violent extremism.

“The Leaders discussed ways to strengthen protection against digital recruitment of terrorism. They also expressed their strong views that the building of nuclear arsenal in North Korea is destabilizing and called for North Korea to denuclearize,” he said.

Moreover, Coloma said US President Obama and the ASEAN leaders were confident of closer ASEAN-US cooperation in areas of common endeavor, such as maritime security, economic engagement and people-to-people ties.

In his brief remarks at the opening of the US-ASEAN Leaders Summit, US President Obama described the landmark gathering on US soil a reflection of his commitment to a strong and enduring partnership with Southeast Asian nations.

This is the first time that the leaders of ASEAN countries are meeting in the United States. The aim of the summit was to deepen US engagement with Southeast Asian nations.

The ASEAN, established in August 1967, groups Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. PNA/