KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia >> Divisions within Asia over China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea spilled over Wednesday to a meeting of U.S. and Asian defense ministers, where China insisted the group make no public mention of the strategic waters in a joint declaration intended as a public display of unity.
As a result, a joint statement was canceled. Both host Malaysia and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter discounted the significance of the failure, which reflected a split with China and other Asian nations over the South China Sea issue.
“I had no expectation there would be agreement,” Carter told a news conference, adding that the important point was that the South China Sea was a “persistent topic” of the conference.
“Everybody raised it,” he said.
Carter defended U.S. Navy patrols in the contested waters that China objects to, saying the U.S. has been sailing in the South China Sea for decades to the benefit of regional security and economic prosperity. He said he planned to go aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt transiting the South China Sea on Thursday, accompanied by his Malaysian counterpart, Hishammuddin Hussein, as a symbol of the United States’ commitment to promoting stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.
What’s new and problematic, Carter said, is China’s land reclamation and militarization of reefs and islets.
“What we sign on the joint declaration is not going to resolve the issue of duplicating claims nor is it going to wish vessels that are in the South China Sea away,” Hishammuddin said.
He said that “our concerns are more real … unintended accidents at the high sea, which can spiral into something worse and that we must avoid.” The Southeast Asian grouping will continue to engage China and the U.S. to ensure peace and stability in the region, he said.
Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said that the dispute over the joint declaration was due to “differences in phrasing and interpretation.” But he said “all countries agreed on the freedom of navigation and all countries accepted international laws and norms.”
In a statement issued by the host country, Malaysia said the meeting noted the importance of the early conclusion of the code of conduct in the South China Sea — a set of rules meant to govern behavior in the disputed waters — “in order to build mutual trust and confidence, and maintain peace, security and stability in the region.” China has so far dragged its feet in concluding discussions on the code of conduct.
American officials traveling with Carter said that China, which like the United States is not a member of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations but was attending the defense ministers’ meeting as an invited partner, was adamant that the meeting’s final public statement omit any mention of the South China Sea. The Americans argued that it would be better to make no joint statement at all rather than issue one that omitted mention of the contentious South China Sea issue.
China’s claims in the South China Sea are disputed by several countries in the region, including Malaysia.
At his news conference, Carter was asked about his meeting Tuesday with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, where Chang told Carter that there is a “bottom line” to China’s patience with challenges to its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Carter noted that in a September visit to the White House, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he has no intention of pursuing militarization of the artificial islands his country is creating in the South China Sea.
“That’s the fundamental point,” Carter said, indicating the U.S. intends to hold Xi to his word.
“We all must mean what we say,” he said.
Carter said he has accepted an invitation by China to visit Beijing next spring.