Robert Gates, Nguyen Thang Anh, Nguyen Huu Manh, Nguyen Hong Quang
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, right, is greeted by, from left, Sr. Col. Nguyen
Hong Quang, Maj. Gen. Nguyen HuuManh, and Second Lt. Nguyen Thang Anh
as he deplanes a U.S. MilitaryAircraft as he arrives at the Noi Bai International
Airport in Hanoi,Vietnam, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010. Gates is in Vietnam to
reassure jitterySoutheast Asian nations this week that the United States won't
cede itslongtime role as the pre-eminent military power in the Pacific as
Chinese naval ambitions expand. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)


By ANNE GEARAN
The Associated Press
updated10/10/2010 11:40:33 AM ET2010-10-10T15:40:33


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

ambitions expand.


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'

gathering here.


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.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material

may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39602696


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