Asean defence ministers yesterday failed to sign a joint declaration at the conclusion of a regional defence forum in Kuala Lumpur, following disagreements on whether to include a mention of disputes in the South China Sea.
Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who kept mum on the issue when reporters pressed him for the reasons behind the last-minute cancellation of the signing ceremony, later divulged in a press conference that the ministers all agreed not to sign because they could not reach a consensus.
But he stopped short of pinpointing the South China Sea issue as the main reason and emphasised that there were many other issues that the defence ministers agreed on, including matters relating to terrorism and humanitarian relief.
"To state categorically what is the issue (causing the cancellation) and who objected is just going to be polemic among us.
"I would like to bring the temperature down because there are many other channels in the next few weeks to discuss issues which could not be agreed upon this time around among the defence ministers," Datuk Seri Hishammuddin said, adding that the Asean foreign ministers and top leaders are slated to meet in the weeks ahead.
Tensions over the South China Sea have heightened since a US warship sailed close to two of China's artificial islets last week. Both the United States and China took part in the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) as dialogue partners this week.
In a press conference yesterday, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters that all countries he met with raised the South China Sea issue. "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," he said.
He also said he would visit an American aircraft carrier conducting routine operations in the South China Sea today. Another US official, who did not want to be named, said Mr Carter will be joined on the visit by Mr Hishammuddin.
In response to US activity in the South China Sea, Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan said the issue of freedom of navigation should not be "hyped up" or used as an excuse for provocation.
China's Defence Ministry, on its website, blamed the failure to sign a joint declaration on "certain countries" outside South-east Asia - widely believed to be a reference to US - which it said had attempted to "force" content into it.
Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the ministers had recognised the difference of opinions.
"What is important is that we go back, reflect and respect the views (raised by other nations) and see how we can find common ground," he said.
Dr Ng said he highlighted to the ADMM that Singapore supported the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct. He also suggested expanding the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to include civilian ships.