A meeting of Asia-Pacific defence ministers has scrapped plans for a joint declaration after the Chinese delegation lobbied to block mention of Beijing’s island-building activities in the disputed South China Sea, a US defence official said Wednesday.
“Our understanding is there will be no joint declaration,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The US official had said earlier that China was opposing mention in a joint statement of its construction of artificial islets capable of hosting military hardware and personnel, moves meant to reinforce its claims to virtually all of the strategic South China Sea.
Sino-US friction over the issue has spiked since last week, when the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the land formations in the disputed Spratly Islands.
Washington felt 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,” the US official said on condition of anonymity.
Defence ministers from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hosted an annual meeting with regional partners including the United States and China on Wednesday morning in Kuala Lumpur.
Beijing considers any criticism of its disputed claims and the island-building campaign as a challenge to its sovereignty.
The US official said “a number of ASEAN countriesâ€Ž felt that (it) was inappropriate” to exclude mention of the islands impasse from an official statement.
“It reflects the divide China’s reclamation and militarisation in the South China Sea has caused in the region,” the official said.
The US insists it has freedom of navigation in the area but the USS Lassen visit has angered China.
ASEAN defence ministers are meeting with US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan and their counterparts from Russia, Australia and elsewhere in the region.
Carter told Chang in a meeting late Tuesday that the United States would continue to sail its vessels in waters that China claims.