Asean defence ministers gathered yesterday to discuss regional security issues amid jockeying over the South China Sea between China and the United States.
The meeting came a week after a US guided-missile destroyer sailed close to one of China's man-made islands in the contested waters of the South China Sea, angering the Chinese.
Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein welcomed the world's major powers to operate in international waters, including the South China Sea, but warned that they have to abide by international laws.
"Yes, I believe it is important that all major powers who have a stake or feel that they have a role and responsibility in the region be there.
"But the most important thing is that the presence of powers outside Asean, I hope, will not create a situation which will increase tensions and make the waters more murky," he said at a press conference after chairing the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) retreat.
Noting Asean's concern over the presence of the Chinese and Americans in the region, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin stressed the importance of the grouping engaging the powers as a bloc.
"How we engage powers as an Asean bloc is very important. Individually, we may not have much impact... but, together as 10 nations engaging with the major powers, we can make a difference," he said.
US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter yesterday told his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan that the US military will continue to operate in the South China Sea, said a senior US defence official.
"(Carter) once again reaffirmed that the United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. And he clearly made the case that the South China Sea would not be an exception," the official said after the two defence chiefs met in Kuala Lumpur, reported Agence France-Presse.
They are due to take part in the ADMM-Plus today, which gathers Asean and its six dialogue partners that also include Japan and Russia.
On Monday, a US defence official, quoted anonymously by wire agencies, said the US plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea about twice a quarter to remind China and other countries about US rights under international law.
The US warship USS Lassen last Tuesday sailed within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit that China claims around artificial islands it has built in the Spratly islands.
This prompted China's naval commander to tell his US counterpart that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if the US did not stop its "provocative acts" in the disputed waterway.
Under international law, artificial islands can have a 500m safety zone, not a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea.
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