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U.S., Japan push for mention of South China Sea in defence forum statement

The United States and Japan are pushing to get concerns about the South China Sea included in a statement to be issued after regional defence talks in Malaysia despite Chinese objections to any mention of the disputed waterway, officials said.

A senior U.S. defence 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 defence 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. defence 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 defence 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 Washington didn't 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. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has previously criticised China's actions in the waterway.

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 defence ministers on Tuesday, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein made no mention of the South China Sea.

China says the seven man-made islands in the Spratlys will have mostly civilian purposes as well as undefined defence 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. defence official said on Monday.

"That's the right amount to make it regular but not a constant poke in the eye," the official said.

The USS Lassen's patrol last Tuesday was the most significant U.S. challenge yet to the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit China claims around the artificial islands.

Speaking in Beijing, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, 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 at a Beijing university during a visit to China, part of regular exchanges that take place between the two navies despite tensions over the South China Sea.

Harris has been highly critical of Beijing's island building in the Spratlys, saying earlier this year that China was creating a "great wall of sand" in the South China Sea.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter might visit a U.S. Navy ship during his visit to Asia, but is not expected to be on board during any Navy freedom-of-navigation operations, the second U.S. defence official said.

[Source: By Yeganeh Torbati and Trinna Leong, Reuters, Kuala Lumpur, 02Nov15]

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East China Sea Conflict
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