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Impasse at defence meeting over South China Sea: US official

An aerial photo taken through a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, in this May 11, 2015 file photo.

[KUALA LUMPUR] South China Sea tensions are threatening to create an impasse at a meeting of Asia-Pacific defence chiefs, with China lobbying to exclude mention of the issue from a joint communique, a US defence official said Wednesday.

Defence ministers from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and its regional partners are meeting in Kuala Lumpur for annual talks, but the US official said a signing ceremony was now "in doubt".

The meeting takes place on Wednesday with Washington and Beijing locked in a confrontation over China's construction of artificial islets in the disputed sea, and the presence of a US naval ship in the area last week.

China claims virtually all of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory and rejects outside "interference" in its activities there, and the US official said it wanted no mention of them in a final declaration.

"Understandably, a number of Asean countries felt that was inappropriate," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"It reflects the divide China's reclamation and militarisation in the South China Sea has caused in the region." It was not immediately clear whether the declaration was in jeopardy, or merely the signing ceremony.

The Asean defence chiefs are meeting with US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, China's Defence Minister Chang Wanquan and their counterparts from Russia, Australia and elsewhere in the region as part of an annual Asean-hosted dialogue.

Last week, a US destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the land formations China claims in the disputed Spratly Islands.

The US insists it has freedom of navigation in the area.

Mr Carter told Chang in a meeting late Tuesday that the United States would continue to sail its vessels in waters that China claims.

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

But the US delegation said this did not appear to be an ultimatum that would deter future US sailings in the contested region.

The South China Sea issue has become a regular sticking point in communiques issued by Asean meetings.

China and its allies in the bloc have in the past opposed any wording directly criticising Beijing over its actions.

But Asean declarations have increasingly made clear the grouping's displeasure as concern grows over China's regional intentions.