KUALA LUMPUR — Squabbles over the South China Sea (East Sea) led to defense ministers from 18 countries, including China and the United States, scrapping a joint declaration that was supposed to be issued at the end of their one-day meeting on Wednesday.
The 18 ministers, who gathered in Subang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, had been expected to adopt the "Kuala Lumpur Joint Declaration" but eventually an ASEAN chairman's statement was issued instead.
The regional defense forum, held biennially, involves the 10-member ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.
Early on, officials drafting the declaration had been wrangling over the sensitive issue of the East Sea as China opposed any mention of the fiercely contested waters in the document.
The defense ministers' meeting comes as China is fuming over what was seen as a provocative act by the United States last week when it sent the destroyer USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles of some small artificial islands that China has built on a disputed reef.
China has strongly protested, but the United States insists it has the right to sail in international waters.
"The United States' freedom of navigation operation is not new, either in the East Sea or, I should add, around the world. We conduct them from the East Sea right up to the Arctic," US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at a press conference, defending the USS Lassen's move.
"What is new is the scale of reclamation and militarization that is concerning many countries in the region, including the US That's why we are calling for all claimants to halt reclamation," he added.
Carter denied responsibility for the failure of the forum to come up with a joint declaration, saying it was ASEAN ministers who made the call.
"Obviously they weren't able to reach consensus and that reflects the level of concern that was reflected in the conversation about activities in the East Sea," he said. "The US was not part of that process." Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who chaired the forum, played down the joint declaration imbroglio.
"The threat is what's not in a piece of paper. What we sign in a joint declaration is not going to resolve the issue of duplication of claims, nor is it going to wish the vessels that are in the East Sea away. So to dwell on the joint declaration is not going to solve the real problem," he told a press conference at the end of the meeting.
In the chairman's statement, Hishammuddin said the meeting "noted the importance of the effective implementation of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea and the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the East Sea, in order to build mutual trust and confidence and maintain peace, security and stability in the region."
In the declaration, which ASEAN and China signed in 2002, they vowed to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes, and to respect freedom of navigation in and overflight above the East Sea.
While that declaration is merely a set of nonbinding principles, ASEAN has sought to craft with China a legally binding document that could be used to resolve deadlocks, disputes and tensions in the East Sea that may arise from time to time.
ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.—KYODO