The signing ceremony for the “Kuala Lumpur Joint Declaration” was dropped from the ASEAN defense forum’s program after Chinese delegates began pressuring participants to remove any reference to tensions in the South China Sea from the joint statement, the New York Times reports:
The Chinese Ministry of Defense confirmed that the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, had failed to conclude a joint declaration, and it blamed “the individual country (countries) out of the region.” In a statement on its website, the ministry implied, but did not name, the United States as the main reason for the breakdown in the discussions.
The ministry did not mention the South China Sea or China’s insistence that the statement not include any mention of the strategic waterway.
Diplomats from countries in the region said that China had pushed for even a factual statement of the South China Sea to be absent from the joint declaration scheduled for the end of the gathering Wednesday afternoon.
The meeting was split between countries that agreed with China and those that strongly disagreed, including Australia, Japan and the United States, two senior diplomats involved in the talks said.
A U.S. representative saw the move as an explicit rebuke to China: “Understandably a number of ASEAN countries felt that [pressure] was inappropriate. It reflects the divide China’s reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea has caused in the region”, he said. “This was an ASEAN decision but in our view no statement is better than one that avoids the important issue of China’s reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea.” Chinese officials, for their part, tried to shift the blame, saying that “certain countries” (read: Japan and the United States) had “tried to forcefully stuff in content to the joint declaration”, leading to the collapse in talks.
It is hard to know exactly what happened in Kuala Lumpur. But it is clear that this development frustrates China and pleases the United States. As such, it may be a sign that new U.S. policy in the region—for instance, last week’s freedom of navigation exercises—has started to bear fruit.