U.S. President Barack Obama ended his Asian tour on Tuesday with a warning to Beijing not to use force to settle territorial disputes, sparking an angry response from Chinese media amid growing regional tensions.
Obama told a gathering of U.S. and Filipino troops at the end of his tense four-day visit to the region on Tuesday that nations should respect each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
"We believe that international law must be upheld, that freedom of navigation must be preserved and commerce must not be impeded," said Obama as Washington signed a 10-year agreement to give the U.S. military greater access to Philippine bases.
Obama said the arrangement will help promote peace and stability in a region unsettled by China's claims on disputed territories. Many of the details remain to be worked out.
"We believe that disputes must be resolved peacefully and not by intimidation or force," he told troops at Fort Bonifacio near Manila, before boarding Air Force One for the flight home to Washington.
He said the U.S. commitment to defend the Philippines in the face of external armed attacks was "ironclad."
But he omitted to give the same specific reassurance to Manila as he had to Tokyo on the first leg of his tour; namely that the U.S. would come to Japan's aid in the event of military conflict with China over ongoing and multiparty maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas.
China's state media responded by accusing Obama of "ganging up" with its neighbors and creating a security threat of its own.
"It is increasingly obvious that Washington is taking Beijing as an opponent," said an editorial in the English-language China Daily newspaper on Tuesday.
Beijing has come to view Obama's visits to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines as a tour of anti-Chinese hostility, it said.
"With Obama reassuring the U.S. allies of protection in any conflict with China, it is now clear that Washington is no longer bothering to conceal its attempt to contain China's influence in the region," the paper said.
"Ganging up with its troublemaking allies, the U.S. is presenting itself as a security threat to China," it said.
Obama on Tuesday also insisted that the United States is not seeking to counter or contain China.
China's foreign ministry was relatively cautious in its response.
"As for whether the move is aimed at containing China, we need to see what the American side says and what it does," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.
"President Obama and other U.S. officials have said on different occasions that the United States has no intention of containing China," Qin said. "We believe that China and the United States share extensive common interests in the Asia-Pacific region and in Asia-Pacific affairs."
However, Beijing sent three Chinese coast guard ships into waters around disputed islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, which controls them, the Japanese coast guard service said on Tuesday.
Chinese political analysts say the administration of President Xi Jinping has pursued a more aggressive foreign policy than its predecessors since taking the reins of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in November 2012.
According to retired Toledo University international politics professor Ran Bogong, Beijing sees two major threats to national security: domestically from acts of internal unrest, violence, and terrorism, and externally, from Japan.
"In the near future, [perceived] threats to China's national security will come from two quarters at least: internally from terrorist activities and externally from the challenge presented by Japan," Ran told RFA in an interview on Monday.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain huge deposits of oil and gas, including even disputed waters, islands, and reefs close to its neighbors.
Such disputes have sparked sporadic maritime standoffs with vessels from Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines in recent months, prompting calls for stronger U.S. support.
Ran said U.S. military power is still likely to be decisive in maintaining the status quo in territorial disputes.
"U.S. military might is still far greater than China's, and everyone including China recognizes that reality," he said.
Li Xiaobing, director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, agreed.
"It would be very dangerous to underestimate America's military strength," he said in an interview at the start of Obama's trip.
But he said Obama's aim in Asia is still to maintain stability.
"There is a lot of trouble in the world right now, so Obama will want to stabilize [the U.S.] backyard in Asia," Li said.
"He doesn't want to see any major conflict, and that includes clashes between China and Japan."
Reported by Yang Jiadai and Nan Zhou for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.