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Asian, US defence chiefs meet amid China tension

Defence ministers from the US and China met their Asian counterparts in Hanoi today for their first ever regional security talks, with tensions high over Beijing's growing military might.

world Updated: Oct 12, 2010 11:59 IST

Defence ministers from the US and China met their Asian counterparts in Hanoi on Tuesday for their first ever regional security talks, with tensions high over Beijing's growing military might.

"This meeting is a new and important step forward in ASEAN's defence cooperation," said Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, whose country holds the current chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The talks are the first-ever between the 10 ASEAN defence ministers and eight regional partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

"We are currently facing grave security challenges, both traditional and non-traditional," Dung said, listing trans-national crime and natural disasters as among the key issues.

In his opening remarks, Vietnam's Minister of Defence Phung Quang Thanh said: "We are not here to discuss the benefits of war," but to share ideas about cooperation for peace and development.

The meeting followed efforts by Washington and Tokyo in talks on Monday to improve fragile military ties with China, whose growing assertiveness is causing jitters among several of its neighbours.

China pinpointed weapons sales to Taiwan as the main hurdle to improving military relations with the United States, while US Defence Secretary Robert Gates voiced frustration at Beijing's stance.

He said a military dialogue between Beijing and Washington was too important to be derailed by a largely political issue.

The difference of opinion emerged after Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie held talks with Gates in the Vietnamese capital, the first such meeting between the two nations' defence chiefs in almost a year.

Beijing broke off military ties with Washington in January over American plans to sell Taiwan more than six billion dollars' worth of arms including Patriot missiles.

Japan and China also took steps on Monday to further mend ties soured by their worst
diplomatic dispute in years, with a meeting between Liang and Japanese Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.

The two, meeting for the first time since the row erupted a month ago over Tokyo's detention of a Chinese trawler captain after a collision in disputed waters in the East China Sea, agreed on measures to avoid future maritime conflicts, Japanese media reported.

Gates said territorial disputes in another hotspot, the South China Sea, did not come up in his talks with Liang but suggested the issue might be addressed in Tuesday's forum.

"I think that it's clearly on everybody's mind and falls within the rubric of maritime security," he said.

Gates indicated that Washington opposes Beijing's bilateral approach to territorial questions in the South China Sea, saying his country backed a multilateral solution favoured by Vietnam and others in the region.

Thanh, of Vietnam, said the world's security risks have made clear the "important role" of multilateral mechanisms.

China claims sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, as do Vietnam and other ASEAN countries.

Diplomats said there has been Chinese pressure for this week's meeting to avoid discussion of the South China Sea.

Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on Monday called the issue "a little bit sensitive" for some countries in the region.

Ministers were seated around a rectangular table in an alphabetical arrangement that left Gates and Liang roughly facing each other.

ASEAN members proposed that the forum focus on counter-terrorism, disaster relief, maritime security, military medicine and peacekeeping.

"Its utility will be called into question if it doesn't address some of the hard security issues in Asia-Pacific, like the Korean peninsula, like the South China Sea," said Ian Storey, a regional security analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.