The United States and Japan are pushing to get concerns over disputed sovereignty rights in the South China Sea included in a regional statement to be issued at defense talks in Malaysia — a move being strongly resisted by China, officials said.
A senior U.S. defense official said Beijing had made clear as early as February that it didn't want the South China Sea discussed at the meeting between Southeast Asian defense ministers and their counterparts from across the Asia-Pacific region.
"We've been very clear along with many other like minded countries that South China Sea language should be included but there are members who feel differently," said the U.S. defense official, adding China was the main obstacle.
A draft of the concluding statement being prepared by host Malaysia makes no mention of the South China Sea, said a separate source familiar with the discussions, focusing instead on terrorism and regional security cooperation.
Wednesday's gathering brings together the 10 defense ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) along with ministers from countries such as the United States, Japan, China, India and Australia.
The meeting, first held in 2006, is a platform to promote regional peace and stability.
It is taking 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. That prompted China's naval chief to warn his U.S. counterpart in a video teleconference that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if the United States did not stop its "provocative acts."
However, the head of U.S. Pacific military forces, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. said Tuesday the decision to send the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, into the South China Sea last week near Subi Reef, within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit claimed by China, was meant to demonstrate the principle of freedom of navigation.
"I truly believe that these routine operations should never be construed as a threat to any nation," Harris said, according to his prepared remarks. "These operations serve to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law."
The source familiar with the talks in Kuala Lumpur said Japan had requested Malaysia "improve" the draft and make note of the South China Sea. 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.