Nobody wants to admit it publicly, at least on the Malaysian side that the Asean Defence Ministers Plus meeting in Malaysia early this month nearly became a disaster.
Disagreement between the United States and China over how to address the South China Sea issue resulted in the ministers failing to issue a joint declaration outlining cooperation in regional security matters.
The United States and its allies had pressed for a mention of disputes in the South China Sea in the joint declaration while a senior US defence official said China had lobbied Asean members to avoid any reference.
This is not the first time maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea became an issue. Asean foreign ministers ended a meeting in Cambodia two years ago without issuing the customary joint communique as there had been disagreement over the growing assertiveness of China in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is fast becoming a focal point especially since four of the six claimant countries are Asean members, namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The other two are China and Taiwan.
This week as the 27th Asean Summit and related summits begin, the issue is escalating again. It will be interesting to see how as Asean chair Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak will handle leaders from China and the United States during the 10th East Asia Summit (the Asean 10 plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the US).