Southeast Asian defense ministers welcomed the world’s powers operating in areas including the contested South China Sea while warning they needed to stick to international laws.
Ministers from Malaysia and the Philippines backed freedom of navigation operations after the U.S. sent a warship into an area of the South China Sea claimed by China. Still, Indonesia’s Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said communication is important and the U.S. must abide by laws of the sea when carrying out patrols.
The USS Lassen last month came within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China, prompting an angry response by the North Asian nation. It brought the U.S. more formally into the territorial spats between China and some Southeast Asian nations, and cemented the expectation it would act as a policeman and protector in the area.
"It is very important that all major powers who have a stake, or feel that they have a role or responsibility in the region, be here," Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters near Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday on the sidelines of a meeting of his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“But the most important thing is that the presence of powers outside Asean, I hope, will not create a situation that will increase tensions, that will make the waters even more murky," he said.
The South China Sea hosts more than $5 trillion of shipping each year and is home to about a 10th of the world’s annual fishing catch. Some of the sea is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Malaysia doesn’t see any issues with the U.S. patrolling the area as it’s international waters, Hishammuddin said. Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin declined to say if some members of Asean face pressure to back China on the South China Sea issue. Asean members often tread carefully with China since much of the region is heavily dependent on investment and trade with its northern neighbor.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned in May that smaller countries in the region don’t want to be squeezed by the two major powers and have to pick a side.
Asean defense ministers will meet with counterparts from countries including the U.S., China and Japan on Wednesday. "How we engage the major powers as a bloc is very important," Hishammuddin said, adding the region can convey a clearer message as a united voice.
The remarks come amid a visit to China by U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Harry Harris, who met General Fang Fenghui, chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff. Fang said the U.S. patrol had created a “disharmonious atmosphere for our meeting and this is very regretful.”
“Since ancient times the South China Sea islands have been Chinese territory and we are resolute in our determination and will to safeguard our sovereignty and maritime rights,” Fang said.