MANILA >> President Barack Obama called on China on Wednesday to halt its construction on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, raising the contentious issue at the start of a two-day economic summit meeting at which he and other Pacific Rim leaders also discussed trade and climate change.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with President Benigno S. Aquino III of the Philippines, Obama directly addressed the disputed Chinese claims over islands in the critical waterway. He urged the Chinese to stop military activities there and endorsed a process of arbitration to settle differences between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
"We agree on the need for bold steps to lower tensions, including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea," Obama said.
The United States takes no position on the territorial claims of various Asian governments in the region, but Obama has aggressively sought to defend the right of free navigation in the South China Sea, a vital route for commerce and trade. On Tuesday, he announced $250 million in military contributions to several Asian nations to support their efforts to stand up to China.
The president’s comments came at the start of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, summit meeting, at which leaders from 19 regional economies have gathered for discussions about growth and trade.
Later in the evening, Obama joined the other leaders in a tradition at the APEC meeting: donning clothes of the host country. This year, Obama and his counterparts wore a sheer, off-white linen shirt called a barong Tagalog, by Filipino designer Paul Cabral, according to local news media.
The formal men’s version has a four-button placket, golden embroidery and is usually worn buttoned to the neck, which has a pointed collar. The women’s version is similar but has an open neckline.
Obama and the other leaders posed in the barongs before sitting down for dinner and entertainment, which included a rendition of "On a Clear Day," by Jessica Sanchez, one of the finalists on season 11 of "American Idol" and a former member of the cast of "Glee." Sanchez, who is from California, is the daughter of a Philippine woman.
During the day, Obama participated in a series of working sessions. The centerpiece of the discussions on Wednesday was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was agreed to recently by a dozen countries, including the United States. Obama hailed the deal at a meeting with other leaders.
"This is the highest standard and most progressive trade deal ever concluded," he said, standing beside Michael Froman, the U.S. trade representative, who helped negotiate the pact. "It includes strong protections for workers, prohibitions against child labor and forced labor. It has provisions to protect the environment, to help stop wildlife trafficking, to protect our oceans."
The agreement still faces an intense debate in the United States as Congress considers it. But Obama expressed confidence that it would be approved.
"The fact that everyone here has stepped up and made some hard decisions that are going to pay off for decades to come I think is testimony to the vision that was reflected," he said.
Obama also used the summit meeting to push for his climate change agenda, telling a group of chief executives that the world must face the "urgent and growing threat of climate change" before time runs out.
He said the economic and social threats from climate change should be of particular concern to the people of Southeast Asia, where many low-lying islands could face disaster as sea levels rise.
"Few regions have more at stake in meeting this challenge than the Asia-Pacific region," he said.
Obama is scheduled to travel to Paris at the end of the month for a climate change summit meeting that aims to reach an accord dedicating many nations to reducing their carbon emissions to slow global warming.
The president hosted a discussion of climate change at the chief executives’ forum along with Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Aisa Mijeno, a Filipino entrepreneur who invented a lamp that runs on saltwater.
In response to a question about her lamp from Obama, Mijeno said that it provided about eight hours of light, as well as power to a USB port for charging a phone.
"And all you need to do is you just have to replenish the saltwater solution," she said, "and then you have another eight hours of lighting."
Ma offered the president the perspective of a very large company that, he said, spends 0.3 percent of its revenue to encourage young people to find creative ways to help the environment. He said that when he was 12, he almost drowned in a lake, and that now that lake was dry.
"If we do not care about this earth, we do not care about the water, food, environment, I think nobody can survive, whether you’re big or small," Ma said. "So this is the concern. This is the worry I have."
Obama was scheduled to end the day with a working dinner to further discuss economic issues.