By Craig Whitlock
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; A12
HANOI - Leaders from 18 countries, including the United States, gathered in Vietnam on Tuesday to try to resolve a spate of territorial conflicts in Asian waters that have escalated political tensions.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the conference of Asian defense ministers that the United States holds a "national interest in freedom of navigation" in the region, despite China's recent claims of sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, the East China Sea and other waters off its coast.
Beijing's expansive territorial claims have led to recent conflicts with Japan, Vietnam and other neighbors as each country has sought to assert its rights over disputed fishing grounds, remote islands and seabeds potentially rich in mineral deposits.
Given China's growing economic and military clout, many smaller Asian countries have sought to seek protection and strengthen ties with the United States, which has long operated the most powerful navy in the Pacific region.
On Tuesday, Gates echoed recent statements by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the United States would not take sides on competing Asian territorial claims but would insist on open access to international waters and shipping lanes.
"The United States has always exercised our rights and supported the rights of others to transit through, and operate in, international waters," Gates said. "This will not change."
Washington's stance has irked Beijing, and Chinese leaders have told the Obama administration to butt out of what it sees as local disputes.
On Tuesday, however, there were indications that China was softening its position. As the conference in Hanoi got underway, Vietnam announced that China had released nine Vietnamese fishermen detained since Sept. 11, after their boat entered disputed territory near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
In a speech at the Hanoi conference, the Chinese defense minister, Gen. Liang Guanglie, refuted concerns that China was seeking to bully its neighbors.
"China's defense development is not aimed to challenge or threaten anyone but to ensure its security and promote international and regional peace and stability," Liang said. "Security of a country relies not only on self-defense capabilities but also on mutual trust with others."
U.S. officials have said they are worried that local territorial spats - such as a collision last month between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese patrol craft in a contested part of the East China Sea - could get out of hand and prompt a military conflict or economic crisis.
Gates met with Liang on Monday in the first high-level military talks between China and the United States in nearly a year. The U.S. defense secretary said that he did not speak directly with Liang about the South China Sea or other maritime squabbles but that the issue was a hot topic at the conference.
"I think it's clearly on everybody's mind and falls within the rubric of maritime security," Gates told reporters Monday.
The United States and China have been at odds generally over security policy. Beijing cut off military ties with the Pentagon in January after the Obama administration announced a $6.4 billion arms deal with Taiwan.
In recent weeks, however, the military relationship has begun to thaw. On Monday, Liang formally invited Gates to visit Beijing, a trip both sides are planning tentatively for early next year.