KUALA LUMPUR – Divisions within Asia over China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea spilled over Wednesday to a meeting of U.S. and Asian defense ministers, where China insisted the group make no public mention of the strategic waters in a joint declaration intended as a public display of unity.
Officials from Malaysia, which hosted the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense chiefs meeting, did not immediately comment on reasons for the cancellation. However, in a revised schedule of the day’s program, the signing ceremony for the Kuala Lumpur Joint Declaration was dropped.
Earlier, a senior U.S. defense official said China was lobbying Southeast Asian nations to drop any reference to concerns over the South China Sea in the statement.
“The reason is because the Chinese lobbied to keep any reference to the South China Sea out of the final joint declaration,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.
“Understandably, a number of ASEAN countries felt that was inappropriate. It reflects the divide China’s reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea has caused in the region.”
The U.S. official added, “This was an ASEAN decision but in our view no statement is better than one that avoids the important issue of China’s reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea.”
China’s Defense Ministry, however, blamed “certain countries” outside Southeast Asia, a pointed reference to the United States and Japan.
They “tried to forcefully stuff in content to the joint declaration,” and the responsibility for failing to come up with a joint statement was completely with those countries, the ministry said in a microblog post.
Wednesday’s gathering brought together the 10 Southeast Asian defense ministers, along with ministers from countries such as the Australia, China, India, Japan and the United States.
The meeting, first held in 2006, is a platform to promote regional peace and stability. It took place a week after a U.S. warship challenged territorial limits around one of Beijing’s man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago with a so-called freedom-of-navigation patrol.
U.S. defense chief Ash Carter, who also attended the meeting, planned to go aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on Thursday as it transits the South China Sea off the Malaysian coast, a senior U.S. Official said. Carter planned to bring his Malaysian counterpart with him, the official added.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
Officials this week said the United States and Japan were pushing to get concerns about the South China Sea included in the joint statement.
Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani called for cooperation in keeping the South China Sea open, free and peaceful in a speech to the ASEAN meeting on Wednesday.
Beijing had made clear as early as February that it didn’t want the South China Sea discussed at the meeting, a second senior U.S. defense official said earlier in the week.
Malaysia had agreed to include a mention of the South China Sea in the final statement, said a Philippine defense official traveling with the defense minister.
The official declined to give specific details but said the Philippines, which traditionally argues for a stronger stance against China’s territorial ambitions, was satisfied with the reference.
A copy of remarks by Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein that appeared to have been issued to media by mistake and was later retracted stated that ASEAN seeks a “peaceful resolution to the disputes” in the South China Sea.
It added that “collisions in open seas and skies must be avoided at all costs” and that leaders should prioritize regional security.
“The threat is not what is on a piece of paper,” Hishammuddin said later. “What is signed in the joint declaration is not going to resolve the issue of duplicating claims, nor is it going to wish the vessels that are in the South China Sea away. To dwell on the joint declaration is not going to solve the real problems.”
Concluding the long-stalled code of conduct is needed “to build mutual trust and confidence and maintain peace, security and stability in the region,” Hishammuddin said in his chairman’s statement.