Signing of declaration at defence forum cancelled over South China Sea

South-east Asian defence ministers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the Asean defence forum. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) has scrapped a plan to sign a joint declaration on Wednesday (Nov 4) after their meeting with eight dialogue partners, amid disagreements over whether to mention the disputed South China Sea in the document.

"The decision was made by Asean because there is no consensus, so no joint declaration is signed," Malaysian Minister of Defence Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference. Malaysia is the host country of the Third Asean Defence Ministers meeting (ADMM).

A senior Malaysian defence official told The Straits Times that the member states decided not to sign a joint declaration due to several "concerns", including the South China Sea issue.

A US defence official, quoted by Agence France-Presse (AFP), said the Chinese delegation had lobbied the Asean ministers to exclude any mention of China's artificial island building activities in the disputed South China Sea.

The US official said 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 official revealed that "a number of Asean countries felt that (it) was inappropriate" to exclude mention of the islands impasse from the official statement, triggering the cancellation of the signing ceremony on Wednesday.

"It reflects the divide China's reclamation and militarisation in the South China Sea has caused in the region," the official told AFP.

The US and China took part in the ADMM Plus meeting on Wednesday morning, together with other dialogue partners including Australia, Japan and Russia.

Tensions have heightened over the issue since a US guided missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within a 12 nautical mile radius claimed by China around its man-made islands in the Spratly Islands last week.

Under international law, artificial islands are allowed only a 500-m safety zone, not a 12-nautical mile territorial sea.

China regards any criticism of its island building activities as a challenge to its sovereignty and territorial claims over the contentious area.

The sailing of the USS Lassen near Beijing's artificial islands had 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.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, who met his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan on Tuesday (Nov 3) on the sidelines of the regional defence forum, maintained that the US military would continue to operate in the South China Sea.

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