Plans for a ceremonial joint statement at the end of a southeast Asian regional defence forum were dropped on Wednesday after differences between China and the United States over the mention of disputes in the South China Sea in the document.
Officials from Malaysia, which is hosting the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) defence chiefs meeting, did not immediately comment on reasons for the cancellation. However, in a revised schedule of the day’s programme, the signing ceremony for the ‘Kuala Lumpur Joint Declaration’ was dropped.
Earlier, a senior US defence official said China was lobbying southeast Asian nations to drop any reference to concerns over the South China Sea in the statement.
“The reason is because the Chinese lobbied to keep any reference to the South China Sea out of the final joint declaration,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.
“Understandably a number of Asean countries felt that was inappropriate. It reflects the divide China’s reclamation and militarisation in the South China Sea has caused in the region.”
The US official added, “This was an Asean decision but in our view, no statement is better than one that avoids the important issue of China’s reclamation and militarisation in the South China Sea.”
China’s Defence Ministry, however, blamed “certain countries” outside southeast Asia, a pointed reference to the United States 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 microblog post.
Wednesday’s gathering brought together the 10 southeast Asian defence ministers, along with ministers from countries such as the Australia, China, India, Japan and the United States.
The meeting, first held in 2006, is a platform to promote regional peace and stability.
The meeting is taking place a week after a US warship challenged territorial limits around one of Beijing’s man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago with a so-called freedom-of-navigation patrol.
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, however, have rival claims.
Officials this week said the United States and Japan were pushing to get concerns about the South China Sea included in the joint statement. However, Beijing had made clear as early as February that it didn’t want the South China Sea to be discussed at the meeting, a second senior US defence official said earlier this week.
Malaysia had agreed to include a mention of the South China Sea in the final statement, said a Philippine defence official travelling with the defence minister.
The official declined to give specific details but said the Philippines, which traditionally argues for a stronger stance against China’s territorial ambitions, was satisfied with the reference.
“It’s better than not having it in the document, but of course we could have a better statement,” the official said.
A copy of remarks by Malaysian defence minister Hishamuddin Hussein which appeared to have been issued to media by mistake and was later retracted stated that Asean seeks a “peaceful resolution to the disputes” in the South China Sea.
It added that “collisions in open seas and skies must be avoided at all costs” and that leaders should prioritise regional security.
US defence secretary Ash Carter held a 40-minute meeting with his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan on Tuesday, where the two discussed the South China Sea, a third senior US defence official said.
“The Chinese people and military will not stand for any infringements of China’s sovereignty and relevant interests,” Chang told Carter at the meeting, the Chinese defence ministry said in a statement.
“We urge the United States to put a stop to all its mistaken words and deeds, and not take any other dangerous moves which threaten China’s sovereignty and security interests,” he added.