US-Chinese tensions over the South China Sea have forced a meeting of Asia-Pacific defense ministers to scrap plans for a joint statement after Beijing opposed mention of the hot-button issue, diplomats said yesterday.
The acrimony at the Kuala Lumpur defense dialogue marks the latest fallout from a confrontation between Washington and Beijing over China’s expansive claims to the strategic South China Sea and its construction of artificial islets to back them up.
“Our understanding is there will be no joint declaration,” a US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It was not immediately clear who made the final decision not to issue a statement, but the US official said that “in our view, no statement is better than one that avoids the important issue of China’s [land] reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea.”
Defense ministers from ASEAN and several regional partners met yesterday morning in Kuala Lumpur for an annual dialogue first launched in 2013.
Participants included US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chinese Minister of National Defense Chang Wanquan (常萬全).
Officials said it was the first time the dialogue failed to issue a joint statement by the defense chiefs.
The China-US friction has spiked since last week, when the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of at least one of the China-built land formations in the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島).
The islands are also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.
The US insists it has freedom of navigation in the area, but the ship visit angered China, which called it a threat to Chinese sovereignty.
Some of the Chinese island construction includes runways and analysts say sites that were previously just reefs would be able to host military personnel and hardware.
The US defense official said several ASEAN nations at the meeting agreed that it was “inappropriate” to exclude mention of the South China Sea issue from an official statement.
“It reflects the divide China’s [land] reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea has caused in the region,” the official said.
Xinhua news agency quoted the Chinese Ministry of National Defense expressing “regret” over the episode.
It said a consensus had been reached with ASEAN nations on the wording, but that “individual countries outside the region” — an apparent reference to the US — attempted to “forcefully add” new wording.
Carter told Chang in a bilateral meeting late on Tuesday that the US would continue to sail its vessels in waters that China claims.
A US official said Chang responded by warning that there was a “bottom line” below which Beijing would act to defend the islets, but the US delegation told reporters this would not deter future visits.
Beijing insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which about a third of all the world’s traded oil passes, and whose seabed contains coveted energy and mineral deposits.
The issue is a regular sticking point in statements by ASEAN-hosted meetings.
Beijing and its allies in the bloc have in the past opposed declarations that raise concern over Beijing’s maritime conduct, but recent ASEAN declarations have increasingly made clear the grouping’s displeasure, as regional concern grows over China’s intentions.
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