The Associated Press
HANOI, Vietnam — The United States willback up small Asian nations
who feel bullied by China and will insist on diplomatic solutions to territorial
disputes among China and Pacific neighbors, U.S. officials said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Vietnam to reassure jittery
Southeast Asian nations that the United States won't cede its longtime
role as the pre-eminent military power in the Pacific as Chinese naval
The United States is concerned that newly heated disputes over Pacific
island chains little known to most Americans could hurt access to one
of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes. Smaller nations complain
that China may try to seize the areas outright or assume de facto control
with naval patrols.
Gates was seeing a Chinese general Monday, and both were attending
an Asian security ministers' meeting Tuesday. Gates will meet separately
with delegates from some of the small nations that want U.S. support to
counter the growth of China as a regional power.
Pentagon officials traveling with Gates said he will make the same
argument about U.S. interests in the Pacific and the limits of Chinese
dominion that has infuriated China before.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of sensitive discussions
among Southeast Asian defense chiefs.
President Barack Obama and Southeast Asian leaders recently reiterated
support for a peaceful resolution of the disputes, which some fear could set
off Asia's next conflict.
The United States is trying to persuade China that it would be better off
with smoother, more regular contacts between the two militaries. Their
relationship has been fitful and mostly superficial for years, in contrast
to closer economic and political cooperation.
China broke off military ties altogether early this year in protest of proposed
U.S. arms sales to China's rival Taiwan worth more than $6 billion. China
disinvited Gates for an expected visit to China, and a Chinese general
confronted him about Taiwan during another security meeting in June.
The chill has begun to thaw. China has agreed to restart some lower-level
military discussions this month, and senior Chinese leaders have indicated
they want broader engagement.
"This is something we believe we both need. It is to both our benefits to have
this kind of ongoing dialogue," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told
reporters traveling with Gates.
Peaceful international resolution of the island disputes is a major theme of
the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations security ministers'
Beijing was furious after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
told another ASEAN forum in July that the peaceful resolution of disputes
over the island groups was in the American national interest.
Beijing said Washington was interfering in an Asian regional issue.
The disputed territories include the Spratlys, claimed in whole or in part by
Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam — plus China and Taiwan.
Also contested are Scarborough Shoal, claimed by the Philippines and
China, and the Paracel Islands, disputed by China and Vietnam.
Although largely uninhabited, the areas are believed to sit atop vast
reserves of oil and natural gas. They straddle busy sea lanes and are
rich fishing grounds.
The conflicting claims have occasionally erupted into armed confrontation.
Chinese forces seized the western Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974
and sank three Vietnamese naval vessels in a 1988 sea battle.
China's claim of control over of ocean far from off its coastline is also a
point of friction with the U.S. naval ships have played high-stakes chicken
with Chinese boats in waters the U.S. considers international.
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