NEW YORK—The president of the Philippines said on Thursday that Southeast Asian nations will be unified should China use its weight as a regional superpower in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Benigno Aquino III, speaking a day ahead of a meeting with President Barack Obama and leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that will focus on territorial spats with China, said Beijing has so far not tried to "push us around."
But, he said after a speech on the sidelines of a United Nations global summit, "in case that happens, I think Asean has demonstrated that we will stand as a block."
In a reference to China, he said: "Hopefully, we don't hear the phrase 'South China Sea' with reference to it being their sea."
Aquino, the son of democracy icons, also praised the Obama administration's attempts to strengthen its role in the region, saying the United States has shown a willingness to make its military presence felt.
The Philippines has said it plans a major renovation of an airport on an island it occupies in the contentious Spratly chain in the South China Sea. China and other nations also claim all or parts of the island group.
According to a draft communiqué, Obama and Southeast Asian leaders will call for the peaceful settlement of South China Sea territorial disputes and urge claimants not to resort to force.
Beijing was furious after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a regional security forum in Vietnam in July that the peaceful resolution of disputes over the Spratly and Paracel island groups was an American national interest. Beijing said Washington was interfering in an Asian regional issue.
The US worries the disputes could hurt access to one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes.
China claims all of the South China Sea, where Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have also laid territorial claims. Aside from rich fishing areas, the region is believed to have huge oil and natural gas deposits. The contested islands straddle busy sea lanes that are a crucial conduit for oil and other resources fueling China's fast-expanding economy.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Thursday that the United States supports the principle of freedom of navigation in the region.