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US-China tensions scuttle ASEAN accord

Military tensions over the South China Sea have forced a meeting of Asia-Pacific defense ministers to scrap plans for a joint statement. The impasse at the Kuala Lumpur 10-nation summit reflects an islands dispute.

China's Defense Ministry said Wednesday that "certain countries" outside of Southeast Asia were responsible for the cancellation of a joint statement at the end of a regional defense forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The diplomatic finger-pointing almost certainly refers to Washington, which is in a long-running dispute over the freedom to navigate shipping and military vessels in the strategic South China Sea.

"In our view, no statement is better than one that avoids the important issue of China's (land) reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea," a US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Both US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and China's defense minister, Chang Wanquan, had been taking part in the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, which brought together Russia, China, the US and other powers to discuss regional defense issues.

Carter had told Chang in a meeting late Tuesday that the United States would continue to sail its vessels in waters that China says belong to its territory. China has been constructing artificial islets to back up its claims.

During that bilateral talk, Chang described a "bottom line" below which it would defend the islands.

Beijing insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, a strategic, resource-rich waterway, through which about a third of all the world's traded oil passes. Beijing's assertion has been rejected by Washington.

'Saber-rattling over islets'

USA Zerstörer USS Lassen

The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (2009 file photo) sailed within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea on October 27, 2015, in a challenge to China's territorial claim of the sea passage.

The South China Sea dispute has become a regular sticking point in communiqués issued by past ASEAN summits.

Military tensions threatened to boil over last week, when the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of at least one of the China-built land formations in the disputed Spratly Islands area.

jar/kms (AFP, Reuters)

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