Meeting shuns disputes over South China Sea

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Southeast Asian defense ministers on Tuesday stayed clear of territorial disputes in the South China Sea at an inaugural meeting involving regional powers, including China and the US, in the Vietnamese capital.

To ensure a war of words did not break out, the meeting decided to leave territorial disputes to nations directly involved.

Defense Minister Liang Guanglie dismissed suspicion that China's growing economy would pose a military threat against its neighbors, assuring his counterparts at the forum that China's military will never threaten any other country.

"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," he said in a keynote speech.

"Security of a country relies not only on self-defense capabilities, but also on mutual trust with others."

Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh told a news briefing after the one-day meeting that the South China Sea issue had not been on the agenda.

He said that in their presentations assessing regional security, some ministers mentioned the South China Sea, but all sides agreed that any disputes should be resolved peacefully.

China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei have competing claims in the South China Sea.

Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), told reporters that the issue was not used to pressure China at the forum, as some media outlets alleged, but was only raised "as an example" of issues that the region can work together on.

Tuesday's talks came three months after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called sovereignty issues in the South China Sea a "diplomatic priority" for Washington, and proposed to tackle them at an ASEAN regional forum in July. This prompted a stern rebuke from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Beijing has long insisted that disputes in the South China Sea should only be discussed among countries with territorial claims.

Though Asian nations are cautious about discussing the matter at an international meeting, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the US has a stake in the disputes due to shipping routes and international commerce.

"We have a national interest in freedom of navigation, in unimpeded economic development and commerce and in respect for international law," Gates told the forum.

Japan's Kyodo News Agency said on Tuesday that Washington, trying to get more involved in the issue, believes there is a need to contain China by raising "navigational freedom".

Chu Hao, a researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said sovereignty disputes should be worked out only among countries with claims.

While the one-day meeting did not yield concrete results, plans were announced to convene a meeting of experts in December in Vietnam, currently holding the ASEAN presidency, to discuss the establishment of a "mechanism" to deal with issues such as maritime security and humanitarian assistance.

In a joint statement, the 18 nations present at the meeting also said anti-terror and peacekeeping would be part of the "mechanism".

The meeting provided a good opportunity to strengthen cooperation in these fields, Chu said.

"It has always been difficult to achieve cooperation in Asia given the complexity there," Chu said. But the region could benefit from cooperation that involves others, he added.

The next ministerial-level meeting will be held in Brunei in 2013.

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