President Obama warned China Monday that it should not try to expand its sovereignty in the South China Sea by "throwing elbows."
"The truth is, is that China is going to be successful, it's big, it's powerful, its people are talented and they work hard and, and it may be that some of their claims are legitimate," the president said. "But they... shouldn't just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way." He threw his elbows out to the side for effect.
"If in fact their claims are legitimate, people will recognize them," the president said.
Mr. Obama was speaking at the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Fellows Program, where he hosted a discussion centered on civic engagement, environment and natural resources management and entrepreneurship.
The Chinese have begun building artificial islands in the South China Sea that could include military air strips in an attempt to assert territorial claims. The Chinese claim a busy shipping lane near the Spratly Islands as their own territory, but so do Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam..
Defense Secretary Ash Carter condemned the practice of island-building at an international security summit last week, and he pledged that the U.S. would continue flying over the islands. The U.S. considers the territory around the Spratly Islands to be international waters, and Mr. Obama called China's "aggressive" actions "counterproductive.
He encouraged China to use "international mechanisms" to settle territorial disputes with its neighbors.
"If you start losing that approach and suddenly conflicts arise and claims are made based on how big the country is or how powerful its navy instead of based on law, then I think Asia will be less prosperous, and the Pacific region will be less prosperous. And that's why we've said directly to China and to other claimant countries, we don't have a claim to these areas, we're not parties in the dispute but we do have a stake in making sure that they're resolved, peacefully, diplomatically, in accordance with international established standards," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CBS News Correspondent Seth Doane last week that China's actions represent, "lawful, reasonable construction."
"It's certain countries, out of self interest, that are hyping this tension and smearing China's image," she said.