Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Finding peaceful solutions to various territorial disputes through dialogue has taken centre stage at the ‘ASEAN plus eight’ meeting of defence chiefs currently underway in Hanoi, Vietnam. The near-total agreement has resulted in China’s increasing isolation on the matter. On the sidelines of the conference, India has agreed to train Vietnamese troops for peacekeeping operations; in return, Vietnam will provide the Indian Navy with repair, maintenance and fuel facilities for its ships.
Vietnamese Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh and his Indian counterpart, A.K. Antony (pictured together) signed the deal in the Vietnamese capital on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Defence Ministers meeting. The latter brought together top military officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as representatives of China, Russia, United States, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and India.
For New Delhi, Southeast Asia is increasingly becoming a cornerstone of its policy of greater presence in the Asia-Pacific region, and constitutes a response to the growing presence of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean as well as Beijing’s recent agreements with Islamabad.
Experts also note that the accord is a direct consequence of Chinese naval assertiveness in the Western Pacific. For months, its ships and coastguards have been harassing and seizing Vietnamese fishing trawlers operating in waters claimed by both nations, like the Paracels and Spratly Islands, areas that are also claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei.
Without referring directly to China, Vietnam, which currently chairs ASEAN, has pushed for international mediation and dialogue in settling disputes, a position backed by the United States. Similarly, Washington has enhanced its military ties with Hanoi, with both countries recently participating in joint naval exercises.
In the closed-door meeting, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has insisted that the US had a "national interest" in protecting freedom of navigation, commerce and international law, and that Washington was willing to help bring about a multilateral settlement of claims.
Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand also raised concerns about China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
China did not address these concerns directly, but Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie repeatedly stressed his country’s willingness to settle disputes through “bilateral negotiations”, but rejected demands that third parties be involved in settling issue that touch upon China’s sovereignty and security.
Traditionally, ASEAN meetings have seen lofty declarations but few concrete actions. Experts will now wait and see whether ASEAN plus eight will be any different. The stakes are high, ranging from maritime security to counterterrorism and disaster relief. But at least, defence chiefs have agreed to meet on a regular basis every three years.
On the sidelines of the summit, China and Japan were able to renew contacts after they were cut off following a row over the arrest back in September by a Japanese coastguard vessel of a Chinese fishing captain whose boat was seized in the waters around the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, which both nations claim.
Official sources said that Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan will meet his counterpart Wen Jiabao at the end of the month in Hanoi, at the ASEAN summit of heads of state and government.
Meetings that were previously cancelled as a result of the aforementioned row have also been rescheduled.