CALIFORNIA, Feb. 15, (FN) - With nearly a year left in office, U.S. President Barack Obama has worked on elevating relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during his leadership over two terms.

His hosting of a special ASEAN-U.S. Summit this week in California is another sign of his administration's foreign policy with a "pivot to Asia" and an indication of the United States' close "strategic partnership" with the vibrant regional bloc.

It is also seen by some as a U.S. attempt to draw closer to ASEAN while keeping a check on China, which is one of the closest dialogue partners to the grouping but has not yet hosted a such a special summit with ASEAN leaders.

Summit talks between ASEAN and its dialogue partners are normally held in the country that holds the rotating presidency of ASEAN. The last ASEAN-U.S. summit took place in Malaysia in November.

"Obama has elevated ASEAN-U.S. from just a dialogue partner to a strategic partnership," a senior ASEAN official said.

"Since China is growing, Obama is trying to engage ASEAN closer and that's a reason he initiated this special ASEAN-U.S. Summit in addition to the regular one that was held just less than three months ago in Malaysia," the official said.

The official noted that Obama has also made advances in diplomatic areas involving countries such as Cuba and Myanmar since taking office seven years ago.

At the two-day special ASEAN-U.S. summit through Tuesday in Sunnylands, southern California, Obama is hoping to issue with ASEAN leaders the so-called "Sunnylands Principles" covering a wide range of common interests with an emphasis on sensitive maritime issues that implicates China, without specifically naming the country.

But ASEAN members prefer to call the document simply a "joint statement" or a "joint press statement" due to concerns that it could pave the way for the adoption of additional principles in the future.

Regardless of its title, the U.S. administration is seeking to include in the document a call to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea peacefully.

A draft of the document refers to "peaceful resolution of disputes, including through arbitration, in accordance with international law; importance of unimpeded lawful commerce, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight as described in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as a commitment to non-militarization."

ASEAN members, however, are divided on the wording, with at least six countries dissatisfied with the term "arbitration," while the Philippines wants to retain it to showcase its maritime claims case against China at an international court.

The South China Sea is claimed wholly or partly by China, Taiwan and four ASEAN members — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The six other ASEAN states are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.

China, for many years, has managed to stay close with ASEAN members and tried to influence a few of them through trading, investments, loans and both hard and soft assistance including grants.

The world's No. 2 economy could follow in the footsteps of the United States and host a special summit with ASEAN leaders.

Meanwhile, the connotations of Obama's decision to host ASEAN leaders are not all positive.

International rights watchdog Human Rights Watch has suggested that the U.S. president may serve to empower some ASEAN leaders who are responsible for human rights and democracy violations.

"President Obama knows that human rights are under assault in Southeast Asia; the question is whether he's going to say or do something about it," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

"The risk is that the Sunnylands summit will empower and embolden ASEAN leaders who have been responsible for jailing journalists, cracking down on peaceful protesters and dismantling democratic institutions after coups," he added in a statement.

Among such ASEAN leaders mentioned in the statement were Thailand's Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and five others, except Indonesia, the Philippines, and arguably Singapore, known as a de facto one-party state — that are dubbed as represented by elected leaders.