KUALA LUMPUR // Divisions within Asia over China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea spilled over on Wednesday to a meeting of US and Asian defence 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.
As a result, a joint statement by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) was cancelled. However, both host Malaysia and US defence secretary Ash Carter discounted the significance of the failure, which reflected a split with China and other Asian nations over the South China Sea issue.
“I had no expectation there would be agreement,” Mr Carter said, adding that the important point was that the issue was a “persistent topic” of the conference.
Speaking after the summit, Mr Carter said he would fly out on Thursday to the nuclear-powered USS Theodore Roosevelt, which "is conducting routine operations while transiting the South China Sea" .
Mr Carter defended US navy patrols in the contested waters that China objects to, saying that Washington has been sailing in the South China Sea for decades. What’s new and problematic, he said, is China’s land reclamation and militarisation of reefs and islets.
The US defence chief’s visit could increase discord between Washington and Beijing over Chinese claims to virtually the South China Sea, and its attempts to reinforce those claims by turning reefs and tiny islets into full-fledged islands through reclamation.
“What we sign on the joint declaration is not going to resolve the issue of duplicating claims nor is it going to wish vessels that are in the South China Sea away,” Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein said.
He said that “our concerns are more real ... unintended accidents at the high sea, which can spiral into something worse and that we must avoid”. He said that Asean will continue to engage China and the US to ensure peace and stability in the region.
In a statement issued by Malaysia said the meeting noted the importance of the early conclusion of the code of conduct in the South China Sea – a set of rules meant to govern behaviour in the disputed waters – “in order to build mutual trust and confidence, and maintain peace, security and stability in the region.”
China has so far dragged its feet in concluding discussions on the code of conduct.
* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse