U.S. President Barack Obama Saturday urged all countries to stop building artificial islands in the South China Sea, an area where sovereignty has been disputed by China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Reuters reported. China has insisted most of the South China Sea is in its territory, and the nation has transformed reefs there to enable the building of facilities such as airfields. However, ASEAN members such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have disputed this claim.

"For the sake of regional stability, the claimants should halt reclamation, construction and militarization of disputed areas," Obama said at the third ASEAN-U.S. summit to be held in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

ASEAN and the U.S. elevated their relationship Saturday at the latest summit, they said in a joint statement. This elevation is embodied in a commitment by both sides, partners for almost 40 years, to a secure, prosperous and peaceful Asia-Pacific region, they said.

The partners want to maintain stability, maritime security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, according to their joint statement. It referred to commitments in the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, saying disputes in the area should be resolved peacefully.

"We are committed to a rules-based approach in Asia, respect for international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes," they said in the statement. "Our partnership is committed to strengthening democracy, enhancing good governance and the rule of law, promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, encouraging the promotion of tolerance and moderation, and protecting the environment."

Obama said this week that China should halt construction in the South China Sea, the New York Times reported. While the U.S. has taken no official position on South China Sea territorial claims, the president has attempted to defend the freedom of navigation in the disputed waters.

"The United States strongly supports ASEAN-led regional mechanisms and efforts to advance maritime security and awareness," the White House said in a separate statement.

China has contended its claims in the area date back centuries, but Vietnam has disputed that historical account, as BBC News reported. Countries have been in conflict over the South China Sea for centuries. Obama said this week he would aid the Philippines in defending its claims in the South China Sea by giving the nation two ships.

Last week, two U.S. bomber planes flew near islands built by China in the South China Sea, despite the warnings of the Chinese. And last month, the U.S. authorized a ship to traverse the disputed waters.