S. China Sea tensions torpedo Asia defence chiefs statement

AFP , Wednesday 4 Nov 2015

China-US South China Sea
Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, left, shakes hands with Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission before their meeting at the Bayi Building in Beijing, China, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015 (Photo: AP)

US-Chinese tensions over the South China Sea have forced a meeting of Asia-Pacific defence ministers to scrap plans for a joint statement after Beijing opposed mention of the hot-button issue, diplomats said Wednesday.

The acrimony at the Kuala Lumpur defence dialogue marks the latest fallout from a confrontation between Washington and Beijing over China's expansive claims to the strategic South China Sea and its construction of artificial islets to back them up.

"Our understanding is there will be no joint declaration," a US defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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 militarisation in the South China Sea."

Defence ministers from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and several regional partners met Wednesday morning in Kuala Lumpur for an annual dialogue first launched in 2013.

Participants included US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and China's Defence Minister Chang Wanquan.

Officials said it was the first time the dialogue failed to issue a joint statement by the defence 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 in the disputed Spratly Islands.

The US insists 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 defence 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 militarisation in the South China Sea has caused in the region," the official said.

Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency quoted the country's defence 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 to AFP there would be no joint declaration, but that host Malaysia would issue its own statement likely to touch on the maritime issues.

Carter told 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, 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 have 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 and Taiwan, though none are as extensive as Beijing's.

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