KUALA LUMPUR - 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 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 said Japan had requested Malaysia "improve" the draft and make note of the South China Sea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has in the past been critical of China's actions in the waterway.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion (S$7 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 the grouping to take 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 US Navy plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of the islands about twice a quarter to remind China and other countries about US rights under international law, a separate US 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 US challenge yet to the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit China claims around the artificial islands.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter may also visit a US Navy ship during his visit to Asia, but is not expected to be on board during any Navy freedom-of-navigation operations, the official said.
"I think this meeting will be very important for ASEAN partners to politely signal that they support freedom of navigation, and I think some will ... but at the same time to emphasise that this is not an anti-China issue," said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.