US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Monday called for an international approach to resolving territorial disputes in the Pacific, despite China's opposition to any multilateral deal brokered by Washington.
In remarks that appeared aimed at China, Gates said that "increasingly, we find that relying exclusively on bilateral relationships is not enough. We need multilateral institutions in order to confront the most important security challenges in the region." Key issues in Asia, including "territorial disputes," could best be solved through "strong multilateral cooperation," he said in a speech to military officers at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. Beijing's claims to potentially resource-rich archipelagos in the South China Sea have put it at odds with Vietnam and some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
China favours handling the South China Sea issue bilaterally with individual claimants, while ASEAN members have called for negotiating a "code of conduct" for all nations.
Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters in Hanoi that the South China Sea was a "a little bit sensitive" and would not be on the formal agenda when regional defence ministers meet tomorrow. Gates, who is in Hanoi for the ASEAN-led conference, said that Southeast Asian countries "sit astride key global trade routes," and reiterated the US view on the importance of ensuring unfettered, safe access for global shipping.
"The US and Vietnam, as well as other nations in the region, also share a common interest in maritime security and freedom of access to the global commons," he said. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made similar points on a visit to Hanoi in July, drawing criticism from China.
US officials have said the administration is prepared to help in any multilateral effort to settle the South China Sea dispute. ASEAN members hope to eventually agree with China a binding "regional code of conduct" that will govern actions in the South China Sea and replace a non-binding "declaration" by the claimants not to take destabilising actions in the area.
Gates' speech came hours before he was to meet a Chinese counterpart, General Liang Guanglie, in the first talks between the two nations' top defence officials in about a year.