KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Divisions within Asia over China's claims in the disputed South China Sea spilled over Wednesday to a meeting of U.S. and Asian defense ministers, where China insisted the group make no public mention of the waterway in a joint declaration intended as a public display of unity.
A senior American official traveling with Defense Secretary Ash Carter said plans for a joint statement were canceled, reflecting a split with China and perhaps other Asian nations over citing the South China Sea issue. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity because the defense ministers were still in closed-door meetings.
A Malaysian official, whose country hosted the talks, confirmed the joint declaration was scrapped and will be replaced by a chairman's statement. The official declined to give details.
The U.S. official said that China, which like the United States is not a member of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations but was attending the defense ministers' meeting as an invited partner, was adamant that the meeting's final public statement omit any mention of the South China Sea. The Americans argued that it would be better to make no joint statement at all rather than issue one that omitted mention of the contentious South China Sea issue.
Carter was expected to hold a news conference later Wednesday.
He also plans to go aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on Thursday as it transits the South China Sea off the Malaysian coast, a senior U.S. Official said. Carter plans to bring his Malaysian counterpart with him, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the plan and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
China's claims in the South China Sea are disputed by several countries in the region, including Malaysia, which is hosting the meeting.
It was not clear what Carter or other attendees wanted the meeting's final public statement to say about the South China Sea, which is a highly trafficked waterway with longstanding territorial disputes.
Carter met with his Chinese counterpart, Chang Wanquan on Tuesday evening, and U.S. officials said afterward that Chang repeated the Chinese government's earlier criticisms of U.S. naval movements in the South China Sea. They said he called the U.S. actions provocative and illegal, but they also said the exchanges between Carter and Chang were cordial.
The U.S. officials who briefed reporters on the dispute about mentioning the South China Sea in the group's final statement said that it reflected divisions in the region created by China's reclamation of coral reefs and other land formations in the waterway.
The U.S. asserts that China is militarizing these formations, but Chinese President Xi Jinping told President Barack Obama at the White House in September that China has no such intentions.