Disagreement between the United States and China over how to address rival claims in the South China Sea marred a gathering of Southeast Asian defense officials on Wednesday, with a joint statement scrapped after ministers failed to agree on its wording.
The United States and its allies had pressed for a mention of disputes in the South China Sea in the statement while a senior U.S. defense official said China had lobbied members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to avoid any reference.
“The decision was made by ASEAN because there is no consensus, so no joint declaration is signed,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference.
The forum included defense ministers from the 10 ASEAN members and counterparts from countries such as the Australia, China, India, Japan and the U.S.
It came just a week after a U.S. warship challenged territorial limits around one of China's man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago with a so-called freedom-of-navigation patrol.
The patrol prompted China's naval chief to warn his U.S. counterpart that a minor incident could spark war if Washington did not stop “provocative acts.”
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. China objects to what it sees as outside interference in the disputes.
The U.S. says it takes no position on the claims but it and allies such as the Philippines have been alarmed by increasingly assertive Chinese action including island-building on disputed reefs.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan told U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Tuesday that China's “people and military will not stand for any infringements of China's sovereignty and relevant interests.”
On Wednesday, Chang said freedom of navigation should not be “hyped up” or used as an excuse for provocation.
Carter said the inability of the Southeast Asian ministers to agree on a statement reflected their concern about China's activity in the sea.
“Obviously, they weren't able to reach consensus and that reflects I think the level of concern that was reflected in the conversation about activities in the South China Sea,” Carter told a news conference.
He said China's reclamation and military activities in the South China Sea was a major issue in his bilateral talks this week and that China's President Xi Jinping should stick to his word when he denies militarization of the sea.
“The presence of U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea is not new, that's been going on for decades. What's new is dredging and reclamation and militarization,” Carter said.
Meanwhile, conference host Malaysia had planned to release a statement at the end of the two-day forum but a senior U.S. defense official said China had scuppered that.
“The Chinese lobbied to keep any reference to the South China Sea out of the final joint declaration,” said the official who declined to be identified.
“Understandably a number of ASEAN countries felt that was inappropriate. It reflects the divide China's reclamation and militarization ... has caused,” said the official, adding that no statement was better than one that dodged mention of China's activity.
China's Defense Ministry, however, blamed “certain Countries” outside Southeast Asia, a pointed reference to the U.S. 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 blog post.
The ministers' meeting, first held in 2006, is a platform to promote regional peace and stability.
Leaders of the countries attending meet again at ASEAN and East Asia summits this month and Hishammuddin said those talks would give more opportunities to resolve differences.
Carter and Hishammuddin are due to cruise on the USS Theodore Roosevelt on Thursday, a U.S. defense official said, for a voyage bound to keep tension over the rival claims in the spotlight. There was no information about where the U.S. warship would sail but it has been on patrol in the South China Sea.
“The Teddy Roosevelt's presence there and our visit is a symbol of our commitment to a rebalance and the importance of the Asia Pacific to the United States,” Carter said.