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Asia

US backs ASEAN states on disputed islands

Ahead of Asian security talks in Hanoi, the US Secretary of Defense has disagreed with China on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China and Japan agreed to collaborate to prevent maritime conflicts.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung

Secretary Robert Gates meets with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for an international approach to resolving territorial disputes in the Pacific. He made the remarks on Monday in Hanoi prior to the inaugural meeting of Asian defense ministers.

Gates disagreed with China’s position on resolving territorial disputes bilaterally. He said the US found relying exclusively on bilateral relations not enough. Multilateral institutions were needed in order to confront the most important security challenges in the region.

Unresolved maritime disputes

The Pentagon chief was referring to a number of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the Pacific. Countries like Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim parts of the Spratly and Paracel islands, for example. China effectively claims ownership over the whole maritime region by extending its naval patrols deep into the South China Sea and establishing military outposts.

Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh

Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh

Beijing’s claims to potentially resource-rich groups of islands have put it at odds with Vietnam and other ASEAN members. They have also led to several naval clashes in the recent past. Last week, a Vietnamese fishing boat was seized by a Chinese border patrol for allegedly fishing in Chinese territory.

Concerned about China’s increasing influence

Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries harbor concerns over the hardening of China’s position in the sovereignty disputes. The US has also been monitoring China’s activity in the region carefully. The South China Sea is one of the busiest sea routes worldwide.

As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it earlier this year, "The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea."

Call for peaceful settlement

Meanwhile ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan called the upcoming talks in Hanoi important for resolving disputes in the South China Sea. ASEAN members hope to eventually agree with China on a binding so-called regional code of conduct.

The mutual agreement would govern actions in the South China Sea and replace a non-binding declaration by the claimants not to take destabilizing actions in the area.

Sino-Japanese agreement

Robert Gates shakes hands with Japan's Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa in Hanoi

Robert Gates shakes hands with Japan's Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa in Hanoi

Meanwhile, the defense ministers of China and Japan have agreed to work together to prevent conflicts at sea. According to Japan’s Jiji Press, Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie agreed during talks in Hanoi to set up a liaison system to avert future maritime confrontations.

Both countries' diplomatic relations cooled down after a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese coastguard ship and the boat’s captain was detained. The incident happened close to the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan and are called Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese.

Author: Chi Viet Giang (AFP/dpa/Reuters)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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