Vietnam Calls for Peaceful Resolution of Maritime Disputes as China Balks

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recent territorial disputes in Asian seas are an increasing threat to the region’s stability and encouraged a maritime code of conduct that China has so far resisted.

“Disagreements over territorial claims and the appropriate use of the maritime domain appear to be a growing challenge to regional stability and prosperity,” Gates told a meeting of Asia Pacific defense ministers today in Hanoi, according to a copy of his speech. “Competing claims should be settled peacefully, without force or coercion.”

Gates’ call for dialogue contrasted with comments by Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, who said not all disagreements should be handled in a group forum. China has resisted finalizing rules to prevent skirmishes in the South China Sea, where it contests sovereignty with Vietnam and several Asian neighbors.

“Practical cooperation within multilateral frameworks does not mean settling all security issues,” Liang said today, according to a copy of his speech. Asia’s biggest defense gathering should cover “easier issues,” he said.

Conflicts in the South China Sea, which Beijing sought to keep off the agenda, were mentioned by the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and several other Southeast Asian countries in the meeting, Vietnam’s Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh said. The final statement made no mention of the disputes.

Asean Rebuff

“We should enhance dialogue and cooperation to build confidence and mutual trust,” Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told the ministers in Hanoi. Cooperation should include “the respect for national independence and sovereignty and resolving disputes with peaceful means,” he said.

The inaugural Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus Eight includes the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and counterparts from the U.S., China, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, South Korea and Russia. Asean rebuffed a push by some of the bigger powers to make the event an annual affair, said Surin Pitsuwan, the 10-member bloc’s secretary-general.

The next meeting will be in Brunei in 2013. Ministers agreed to set up “working groups” in the meantime to work on humanitarian assistance, maritime security, counterterrorism, military medicine and peacekeeping operations, Vietnam Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh said.

‘Disappointing’

“The fact that they decided to meet only every three years is disappointing,” said Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore. “These joint working groups are focused on fairly non-sensitive issues.”

Gates repeated a U.S. offer to help facilitate discussions between Asean and Beijing on a full code of conduct in the South China Sea. Asean aims to see a breakthrough on an agreement in 2012, the 10-year anniversary of a preliminary deal on resolving disputes in the sea, Surin said.

A working group to implement the 2002 Asean-China agreement on the South China Sea “hasn’t achieved anything,” Storey said.

Vietnam, Asean’s current chair, last week urged China to release a fishing boat and crew detained close to disputed islands in the South China Sea. China “unconditionally” freed the nine Vietnamese fishermen seized on Sept. 11, Thanh Nien newspaper reported today, citing Phung.

A similar incident between China and Japan more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away last month sparked a diplomatic feud between Asia’s two largest economies. Liang and Japan’s Defense Minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, yesterday agreed to create a liaison system to prevent conflicts at sea, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Jiji Press.

Clinton Call

China’s actions in the seas are “clearly on everybody’s mind and fall within the rubric of maritime security,” Gates told reporters yesterday after separate meetings with Liang, Phung and Kitazawa.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew a terse response from the Chinese government in July when she called settling territorial disputes off China’s southern coast “a leading diplomatic priority.” The comments were “virtually an attack on China,” Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said at the time.

China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei hold claims to islands in the South China Sea. Its waters carry about half the world’s merchant fleet by tonnage each year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

‘Force as Leverage’

“America’s slightly more interventionist approach to the South China Sea dispute will most likely harden the Chinese position,” said Li Mingjiang, assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. China “will implicitly use its military force as leverage” when it negotiates with Southeast Asian countries, he said.

The meeting came as the U.S. and China sought to mend ties strained by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and support for other Asian allies. Gates accepted Liang’s invitation to visit China early next year during a meeting yesterday.

China announced in March it would spend 532.1 billion yuan ($79.6 billion) on defense this year. The Pentagon estimates that actual Chinese military spending is twice that amount. The Pentagon has requested a total of $708 billion for its operations, including money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

“China pursues a defense policy that is defensive in nature,” Liang said in his speech today.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bill Austin at billaustin@bloomberg.net

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