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Asian Defense Chiefs Agree to Keep Discussing Disputes

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, center, listens to his aide while attending the first Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers Meeting Plus at the National Convention Center in Hanoi, 12 Oct. 2010

Asian defense chiefs avoided a confrontation over issues such as territorial disputes during a meeting in Hanoi. China tried to assure its neighbors that its military rise is not a threat, while the U.S. secretary of defense endorsed negotiations to resolve disputes.

The defense ministers at the first Association of Southeast Asian Nations security meeting to include China and the United States focused on common interests such as protecting freedom of the seas for commerce.

"The region is very, very strategic, supporting trade and communication," ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said at the close of the meeting. "So free and open and safe and secure navigation is important. It has been raised, which is agreed by all parties that those are the objectives that the region should try to achieve and should maintain."

The delegates agreed to keep talking on that issue and others, such as competing claims over tiny uninhabited islands in the South China Sea.

Reservations about China

There has been growing concern in the United States and many countries in Asia that China might use its economic power and expanding military to force its will upon smaller countries in the region.

Recently China had been accused of banning exports of critical minerals to Japan after the Japanese coast guard detained a Chinese fishing boat in disputed waters. China denies there was a ban.

Beijing also has disputes with Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia over the Spratly and Paracel islands, which are believed to hold vast reserves of oil and natural gas.

Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese defense chiefs addressed these issues in their comments this week in Hanoi.

Peaceful resolution

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did say disagreements over territorial claims appear to be a growing challenge to regional stability and prosperity. He reiterated that the United States does not take sides on competing claims, but he said they should be settled peacefully, without force or coercion and in keeping with international law.

China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said his country's efforts to modernize its military are purely defensive and not intended to threaten other nations.

He made a point of saying the key to regional security is following the principle of sovereignty and non-interference in others' affairs. But he, too, embraced the concept of building multilateral frameworks to improve cooperation and focus on common interests.

The ASEAN secretary-general says this meeting was the first step in the process.

"And any problem we may have, any differences we may have, we will certainly adopt a peaceful process based on customary and international law," he said.

The 10 members of ASEAN plus eight other regional powers also agreed to develop closer military cooperation to respond to humanitarian disasters, peacekeeping operations and anti-terrorism efforts.