China, US calm regional tensions at ASEAN defense conference

China-US defense chiefs met Tuesday for the first time since Beijing severed links earlier this year. The nations worked to ease tensions over a string of recent maritime disputes in East Asia.

Doan Ky Thanh/Reuters
China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie (r.) and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates pose for a photo before their meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, Oct. 11.

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China's defense chief met Tuesday with his counterparts from Japan and the United States, as the nations worked to ease tensions over a string of recent maritime disputes in East Asia.

Yet in a sign that tensions remain palpable and that the US sees the region as a vital security interest, a US-led multinational naval exercise focused on stopping the transfer of WMDs got underway off the coast of South Korea on Wednesday. China's nonparticipation in the exercises comes just days after Beijing pointedly did not invite the US to naval exercises it held in the Yellow Sea with Australia's Navy.

Ten naval vessels from the US, Japan, and South Korea, as well as aircraft from Australia, are involved in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) exercise, which a South Korean official said "practices how to stop and search ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction," according to Seoul-based Yonhap News. South Korea became a full PSI member in May after the sinking of its naval corvette the Cheonan, which it blamed on North Korea.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Tuesday called upon all actors in the region to respect the laws of the sea, which protect travel through international waters.

“Competing claims should be settled peacefully, without force or coercion, through collaborative diplomatic processes, and in keeping with customary international law," Mr. Gates told defense ministers gathered in Vietnam for a meeting of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus eight countries including Russia, China, and the United States.

Downplaying aggression

But The New York Times notes that Gates also spoke diplomatically, avoiding any mention of China as an aggressor and saying that “the United States does not take sides on competing territorial claims, such as those in the South China Sea.”

The Chinese defense minister, Liang Guanglie, similarly downplayed Beijing's conflicts over naval territory, reports the People's Daily Online, which represents the voice of the Communist Party of China. Mr. Liang said at the conference that "China pursues a defense policy that is defensive in nature. 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."

It was the first meeting of American and Chinese defense officials since Beijing froze military ties earlier this year over US arms sales to Taiwan.

Both Gates and Mr. Liang were clearly attempting to defuse recent tensions in the region. Japan recently arrested a Chinese captain near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, detaining him for 17 days before his Sept. 25 release.

Japan and China meet

But the defense chiefs of the world's two biggest military spenders also seemed to be advocating different paths to such an end. The Times notes that Gates spoke of “collaborative diplomatic processes and in keeping with customary international law,” while the People's Daily emphasizes that the participants at the conference "decided to leave territorial disputes to nations directly involved," an approach long-advocated by China.

The conference appeared to help thaw relations between Japan and China. The two nation's premiers had a short hallway conversation Oct. 4 in Brussels, but Monday's meeting of Liang with Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa marked the first ministerial meeting since the furor over the Chinese captain's detention.

They agreed that a hotline should be set up between Japanese and Chinese defense officials to prevent future incidents, according to the Tokyo-based Asahi Shinbun. Mr. Kitazawa called the meeting "a step forward," though he noted that he "got the impression that it might take some more time" for relations to return to their previous status.

Vietnam News summarizes other results of the conference, including an agreement by all participants to cooperate on counterterrorism, maritime security, humanitarian aid, and disaster response issues.

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