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
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
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
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
"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
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, Editing
by Andrew Marshall)