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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Southeast Asian defense ministers decided Wednesday to scrap the joint statement that traditionally ends their annual summit amid sharp divisions over China’s aggressive buildup in the South China Sea and concerns that the U.S. response could escalate into conflict.

U.S. officials said China successfully pressured some of the ministers to remain silent on its moves to build up disputed reefs and islets that now have runways and fortifications capable of military use, and declare the surrounding waters as its territory.

Following the meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter alluded to the behind-the-scenes strong-arming the U.S. says China placed on the ministers to strip any language about the South China Sea from the joint statement.

Without directly mentioning China, Carter said he hoped future dialogues will operate differently.

“It should respect rights, not might,” he said.

It was also announced Wednesday that Carter will visit the USS Theodore Roosevelt on Thursday as it transits through the South China Sea in what seems to be a symbolic show that the U.S. isn’t going to back down.

The patrol comes about a week after the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Lassen made a “freedom of navigation cruise” last week within China’s declared 12-mile territorial zone around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. Washington has vowed to continue to exercise that right for the foreseeable future, despite China’s warning that it has a limit to what it will tolerate. Close U.S. ally Australia has said it may make similar cruises.

The Association of South East Asian Nations works under a policy of consensus in writing the final declaration, which often leads to a watered-down document, so scrapping it entirely reflects how split the 10-nation group is over China’s actions.

Analysts are also divided — wondering whether pragmatism will lead China and the U.S. to find a way to back off or if the standoff could end up in a military clash.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference that the disagreement between the U.S. and China is a real concern for the group, for while it may be a diplomatic fight between the two powers, the smaller ASEAN nations face the potential consequences.

An estimated 30 percent of global trade transits the South China Sea, and several ASEAN members, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, have territorial claims that conflict with China’s.

“Our considerations are real. Not thoughts on paper,” Hishammuddin said. “What is signed in the joint declaration is not going to resolve the issue of duplicating claims nor is it going to wish the vessels that are in the South China Sea away. Unintended accidents can spiral into something worse.”

He said ASEAN was setting up a hotline as a conduit to defuse a potential crisis.

The U.S. and China do not belong to ASEAN but are invited to participate, given their influence in the region, and their dispute basically hijacked the meeting’s agenda.

“To be clear, this was an ASEAN decision, but in our view, no statement is better than one that avoids the important issue of China’s reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “The Chinese lobbied to keep any reference to the South China Sea out of the final joint declaration. Understandably, a number of ASEAN countries felt that was inappropriate.”

The U.S. had clearly hoped that ASEAN would provide some pronouncement that could be seen as even a weak endorsement of the Lassen’s cruise, which has raised the stakes in the region.

China wasn’t happy with the outcome, with the Xinhua news agency saying Beijing regretted there would be no joint declaration because it had reached a consensus with Malaysia and other ASEAN countries on the contents.

In a clear reference to the U.S., Xinhua said “some individual countries outside the region ignored the existing consensus and attempted to forcefully add into the declaration contents not discussed during the meeting.”

China’s aggression on disputed islands has been building in recent years. Beijing declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea two years ago; the U.S. responded by flying B-52 bombers through it. China also has stepped up air and sea activities around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which it claims.

Before China’s major dredging efforts, Subi Reef was not even believed to be above sea level at high tide, which generally accepted maritime law says would make it ineligible for a 12-mile limit, even with the expansion.

During a visit to Washington in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised not to militarize the islands being built up in the South China Sea.

Carter on Wednesday said that while he welcomed the promise, China must show it will carry through.

“We all must mean what we say,” Carter told reporters.

U.S. officials who briefed reporters traveling to the ASEAN meeting with Carter said China has leaned on regional partners not to raise the South China Sea issue.

The pressure was reportedly intense — overt and behind-the-scenes — to exclude boilerplate language that the countries work to adopt a code of conduct on freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea — language that has appeared regularly in the defense ministers’ policy statements for more than a decade.

China “is incredibly important to them economically and strategically,” a senior U.S. official said before the ASEAN conference launched, on condition of anonymity.

On Tuesday, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan met Carter here for their first one-on-one meeting since both assumed office.

Chang told Carter he views the USS Lassen’s sail as illegal, and that China would take the steps necessary to defend what it considers its sovereign territory. Chang said without elaborating that there was “a bottom line” as to what freedom of navigation activities China will tolerate, officials said.

Carter reiterated that the U.S. would continue to conduct freedom of navigation sails. Another defense official confirmed to Stripes that the continuation of those sails likely meant the U.S. would conduct two transits of the South China Sea per quarter.

Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. Pacific Command chief, Adm. Harry Harris, speaking to students at Peking University in Beijing said, “The South China Sea is not — and will not — be an exception” in the U.S. Navy’s regular freedom of navigation exercises.

Copp.Tara@Stripes.comTwitter: @TaraCopp


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