KUALA LUMPUR: US-Chinese tensions over the West Philippine Sea (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 on Wednesday.
The sea has long been viewed as a potential flashpoint, and the Chinese island-building push has sent fears of conflict to new heights.
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 West Philippine 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.
“We could not reach a consensus on a joint declaration,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.
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 the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and several regional partners met on Wednesday morning in Kuala Lumpur for an annual dialogue first launched in 2013.
Participants included US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan.
Officials said it was the first time that 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 of at least one of the China-built land formations on the disputed Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands.
‘China causing regional divide’
The US insists that 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 will be able to host military personnel and hardware.
The US defense official said several Asean countries 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.
Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency quoted the country’s defense ministry expressing “regret” over the episode.
It said a consensus had been reached with Asean countries on the wording but that “individual countries outside the region” — an apparent reference to the United States — attempted to “forcefully add” new wording.
An Asean official confirmed that there would be no joint declaration, but that host Malaysia would issue its own statement likely to touch on the maritime issues.
Carter declined to lay blame for the breakdown and said “discussions were not heated.”
But both China and the United States pointed the finger at each other.
The US side said several Southeast Asian defense ministers opposed China’s demand that the West Philippine Sea be left out of any statement.
A US official said the United States felt that “no statement is better than one that avoids the important issue of China’s reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea.”
Carter told China’s Defense Minister Chang in a bilateral meeting late Tuesday that the United States 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 has told reporters this would not deter future visits.
Beijing insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea — including a big portion of the West Philippine 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 in the past opposed declarations that raise concern over Beijing’s maritime conduct.
But recent Asean declarations increasingly made clear the grouping’s displeasure, as regional concern grows over China’s intentions.
China’s territorial claims are widely disputed. Longstanding overlapping claims also are made by Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam and Taiwan, though none are as extensive as Beijing’s.
Philippine naval patrols
Lawmakers who had served in the military and the police service on Tuesday said the Philippines should start conducting its own “freedom of navigation” patrols in the West Philippine Sea to assert its rights over the disputed waters claimed by China.
Magdalo party-list Rep. Ashley Acedillo said the Philippines own patrol would show that it would not accept China’s claim.
“We might as well do the same thing the US is doing. That’s good because before, there was no movement of any form from the Philippines or US. If there’s one benefit to doing this is that we do not just accept China’s unilateral position in claiming the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Samuel Pagdilao, a retired police general, said conducting naval patrols strengthens the Philippines’ claim over the West Philippine Sea.
Visit to aircraft carrier
US Defense chief Carter will visit an American aircraft carrier off Malaysia on Thursday, a senior US Defense Department official said.
The official would not specify where the USS Theodore Roosevelt would be sailing at the time, but said the enormous nuclear-powered super carrier is conducting a “routine transit” of the West Philippine Sea.
Carter’s visit could add to worsening discord between Washington and Beijing over Chinese claims to the West Philippine Sea.
The US official said the USS Roosevelt would be far from any of the reclaimed Chinese “islands” at the time of Carter’s visit, and that the ship was not conducting the sort of “freedom of navigation” cruise performed by the USS Lassen.
Carter will be joined on the visit by Malaysian defense chief Hussein. They are expected to spend a couple of hours onboard.
Carter and Japanese Minister of Defense Gen Nakatani confirmed during a meeting in Kuala Lumpur their countries’ intentions to carry out maritime operations in the Asia-Pacific region, the US Defense Department said in a press statement also on Tuesday.
The meeting took place on the sidelines of the Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, which serves as a platform for member nations to discuss defense cooperation with eight dialogue partners such as the United States.
“The two leaders also discussed the rapidly evolving security environment in the Asia-Pacific region, including the East China Sea and the South China Sea,” the press statement said. “They affirmed both governments’ determination to conduct maritime operations in accordance with international law.”
During the meeting with Nakatani, Carter welcomed the enactment of the Peace and Security Legislation in Japan that allows the country to conduct military deployments abroad, according to the statement.