HANOI Oct 8 Concerns over China's maritime ambitions are likely to remain muted at an Asia-Pacific defence ministers' meeting in Hanoi next week as participants steer clear of friction to nurture a potentially useful new security forum.
China, for its part, is likely to play nice at the defence meeting and a summit in Vietnam later this month in an effort to reassure its neighbours that it can be reasonable and cooperative as the dust settles from an angry territorial row with Japan.
On Tuesday, defence chiefs from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) will come to the table for the first time with eight partners -- the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Carlyle Thayer, with the University of New South Wales in Australia, said success for the 'ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus' would be measured by the fact that "the ministers met and no one country gets singled out".
Underscoring that point, Vietnam's Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh said the meeting would try to identify common interests and avoid becoming "a place for a war of words".
Vietnam this week asked for the unconditional release of nine sailors detained by China fishing near the Paracel Islands. But Vinh said that issue was not linked to the meeting and Vietnam's top priority was to have the ADMM Plus get off to a smooth start.
Beneath the surface, Vietnam and others harbour renewed concern about the hardening of China's position in long-running disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea and elsewhere, and China's recent hawkish behaviour.
The South China Sea issue leapt to the fore when foreign ministers from six ASEAN members, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several others raised concerns at the last major ASEAN meeting in July, prompting a tirade from China.
China's territorial ambitions again made headlines when Beijing issued threats and suspended the supply of rare-earth metals to Japan after it detained the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with Japanese vessels off disputed islands.
But Susan Shirk, a China security expert at the University of California, San Diego, said China would probably want to project a calming message at the ADMM Plus and the East Asia Summit later in October.
"I expect that China will use these two meetings to reassure its neighbours and the U.S. that despite its sharp words over the past months, it remains a responsible power interested in cooperation," she said.
On the sidelines next week, China's Defence Minister Liang Guanglie and Japan's Toshimi Kitazawa may meet to try to help soothe bilateral ties still strained by the boat incident.
U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates was also likely to meet Liang for their first talks since China froze military ties in protest against planned U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said he expected participants to try to play down U.S.-China tension in an attempt to build up the fledgling Asian defense ministers' forum.
"I think there will be every effort to not make the Chinese feel singled out. The goal here is to build confidence," he said.
"This is really significant to the U.S. because it's the core of regional security and defense architecture for the region that will be key to solving the problem of a rising China that is feeling pretty muscular."
The 10-member ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, Editing by Andrew Marshall)