The United States and Japan are pushing to get concerns about the South China Sea included in a statement to be issued after regional defense talks in Malaysia despite Chinese objections to any mention of the disputed waterway, officials said.
A senior U.S. defense official said Beijing had made clear as early as February that it didn't want the South China Sea discussed at the meeting between Southeast Asian defense ministers and their counterparts from across the Asia-Pacific in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.
"We've been very clear along with many other like minded countries that South China Sea language should be included but there are members who feel differently," said the U.S. defense official, adding China was the main obstacle.
A draft of the concluding statement being prepared by host Malaysia makes no mention of the South China Sea, said a separate source familiar with the discussions, focusing instead on terrorism and regional security cooperation.
Wednesday's gathering brings together the 10 defense ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) along with ministers from countries such as the United States, Japan, China, India and Australia.
The meeting, first held in 2006, is a platform to promote regional peace and stability.
It is taking place a week after a U.S. warship challenged territorial limits around one of Beijing's man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago with a so-called freedom-of-navigation patrol.
That prompted China's naval chief to warn his U.S. counterpart in a video teleconference that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if the United States did not stop its "provocative acts".
The source familiar with the talks in Kuala Lumpur said Japan had requested Malaysia "improve" the draft and make note of the South China Sea.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
Struggling for unity
ASEAN meetings routinely become a venue for countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam to argue for a stronger stance against China's territorial ambitions.
Countries like Cambodia are pro-China while Malaysia has sought to steer a more neutral path, even though it's a claimant and only last month its armed forces chief called China's island-building an "unwarranted provocation".
In his opening remarks to a separate meeting of ASEAN defense ministers on Tuesday, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein made no mention of the South China Sea.
At a news conference after the meeting, Hishammuddin alluded to the waterway, saying he hoped countries outside ASEAN would not increase tension.
"If the sides cannot find an amicable solution on the way forward, the patrolling and presence of vessels from China or the U.S. raises concerns for us ASEAN countries," he said.
China says its seven man-made islands in the Spratlys will have mostly civilian purposes as well as undefined defense uses.
The U.S. Navy plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of the islands about twice a quarter to remind China and other countries about U.S. rights under international law, a separate U.S. defense official said on Monday.
"That's the right amount to make it regular but not a constant poke in the eye," the official said.
Speaking in Beijing, Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission told the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, that U.S. action in the South China Seas could easily cause "miscalculations" that could threaten regional peace and stability, China's Defense Ministry said.
But Harris, speaking earlier at a Beijing university, said U.S. freedom of navigation operations should not be viewed as a threat.
"We've been conducting freedom of navigation operations all over the world for decades, so no one should be surprised by them," Harris said, on a trip that is part of regular exchanges that are taking place between the two navies despite tension over the South China Sea.
Harris has been highly critical of Beijing's island building in the Spratlys, saying this year that China was creating a "great wall of sand" in the South China Sea.