A U.S. defense official says Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his Malaysian counterpart, Hishammuddin Hussein, will board a U.S. warship sailing in the South China Sea Thursday amid diplomatic tensions over China's maritime expansion in the region.
The two will board the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as it sails off the coast of Malaysia.
The brief cruise by Carter and Hussein will take place days after a U.S. guided missile destroyer sailed within 22 kilometers of the Subi Reef in the Spratly Island archipelago.
Beijing launched a massive building project last year to transform the submerged reefs into islands that can support runways and other facilities, ignoring competing claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and other Asian nations on the region. The Obama administration says the warship's deployment was a routine exercise aimed at protecting the open navigation of the seas.
Dispute overshadows ASEAN
The dispute overshadowed Wednesday's meeting in Kuala Lumpur of ASEAN defense ministers, plus Carter and his counterparts from China, Australia, India and Japan. The ministers failed to issue a traditional joint statement at the end of the forum, after China lobbied to block any mention of the contentious South China Sea.
"I had no expectation that everyone would agree on the South China Sea or any other issue," Carter told reporters. "That's the reason for this forum is to discuss these issues, so I had no expectation with the agreement there. With respect to the joint statement, that is something that ASEAN members discuss. Obviously they weren't able to reach consensus, and that reflects I think the level of concern that was reflected in the conversation about activities in the South China Sea."
China's Defense Ministry said it regretted a joint declaration was not issued, and accused "certain countries" outside of Southeast Asia of being responsible for the cancellation of a statement.
The U.S. has called on China to stop building in the South China Sea, characterizing the activity as destabilizing for the region. Chinese officials have defended the construction as a peaceful effort meant instead to aid shipping through the disputed waterway.