Asia, US Defense Ministers Fail to Reach South China Sea Agreement

U.S. Defense Secretary to Join Aircraft Carrier on South China Sea Patrol

Asean summit founders after China insists on no mention of territorial dispute

Updated Nov. 4, 2015 10:23 a.m. ET

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will visit a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier on patrol in the South China Sea on Thursday in a show of strength to reinforce Washington’s resistance to Chinese assertiveness in the disputed region.

The growing U.S.-China rivalry in the South China Sea overshadowed a high-level Asian defense summit in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday as the Malaysian hosts confirmed there would be no agreement to cap talks, which ultimately foundered on the question of how to mediate territorial disputes.

“We couldn’t reach a consensus,” said Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein at the conclusion of the biannual Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, which brings together 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and eight other countries, including China and the U.S.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet is towed on the flight deck on board the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as the vessel sails toward the Straits of Malacca heading to Singapore on Oct. 23 Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Mr. Hishammuddin – who will join Mr. Carter on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt – denied that the rivalry between the U.S. and China was disrupting regional diplomacy, but behind the scenes officials said that the U.S. and China had been the main obstacles to any agreement.

“The Chinese lobbied to keep any reference to the South China Sea out of the final joint declaration,” said a senior U.S. defense official accompanying Mr. Carter at the ADMM Plus. A senior Philippine defense official said that China had opposed any declaration that included mention of the South China Sea disputes, while the U.S. had opposed any declaration that omitted it.

Even so, Mr. Carter hailed the summit as a success, citing progress on a number of fronts including counterterrorism and disaster relief, and saying unanimity on the South China Sea issue had never been likely. “I had no expectation that they would all agree; that’s the purpose of this forum,” Mr. Carter said. “It was very clearly an issue of discussion and an issue of concern by countries in the meeting because everybody raised it.”

Despite Beijing’s concerns about American patrols, Mr. Carter is doubling down on the signals he intends to send while he is in the region by visiting the aircraft carrier. The warship’s presence in the South China Sea is “a symbol of our commitment to the rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region, he said, referring to the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy of increasing U.S. engagement with Asian countries.

But the confrontation demonstrated how Asean summits are “increasingly being held hostage to tensions between China and the U.S.,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore. Asean meetings were “outliving their usefulness because of the increasing tensions between the great powers.”

China’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday said Beijing “regretted” the failure to reach a common position at the Malaysia talks, blaming “some particular countries from outside the region.” The Chinese defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, said the issue of freedom of navigation “should not be hyped or even become an excuse for provocation,” according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.

Sensitivity over the South China Sea disputes is at an all-time high, with a U.S. warship having last week sailed close to an artificial Chinese islet in the disputed Spratly Islands to assert the right to freedom of navigation there. Beijing condemned the move as provocative.

“Freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce are not new concepts,” Mr. Carter said. “They are not theoretical or aspirational goals.”

The Theodore Roosevelt isn’t expected to sail within 12 nautical miles of any of the disputed islands, as the destroyer USS Lassen did last week, in a direct challenge to Chinese claims there.

The Chinese government also reacted angrily to a ruling last week by a United Nations-backed tribunal in the Netherlands that it has jurisdiction over a case brought by the Philippines against Beijing seeking to have China’s actions in the South China Sea ruled unlawful. China has refused to take part in the arbitration process.

Joint declarations used to be a formality at the closure of Asean summits, but disagreements over how to handle the South China Sea disputes, which involve China and Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, have lately made this a contentious process.

Even so, Asean has only failed to issue a joint statement once before, when a 2012 Asean summit in Cambodia ended in acrimony over the group’s conflicted approach to the South China Sea.

“It’s 2012 all over again,” said Mr. Storey, referring to this week’s summit. “The dynamic between the U.S. and China now dominates the dispute. The Asean conflict-management process is increasingly irrelevant to events on the water.” Statements by China and Asean members agreeing to reduce tensions were becoming “divorced from reality,” he said, with China building islets to exercise control over the South China Sea despite the objections of rival claimants.

U.S. officials in Kuala Lumpur said there had been no agreement on language that would urge all South China Sea claimants to refrain from any actions that might be deemed provocative in disputed areas.

A U.S. official said it “reflects the divide China’s reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea has caused in the region.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. ENLARGE
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: Associated Press

Mr. Hishammuddin highlighted the dilemma Asean faces: He said Malaysia supports the freedom of navigation operations being conducted by the U.S., but lamented that the “the geopolitical considerations of the major powers” – namely China and the U.S. – were raising the stakes in the South China Sea.

Write to Trefor Moss at and Gordon Lubold at

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