"This meeting is a new and important step forward in ASEAN's defence cooperation," Mr Nguyen said yesterday. ASEAN is the Association of South East Asian Nations, which includes Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Philippines and Malaysia. Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States are also invited to the meeting on military cooperation.
Disputes over maritime borders in the East China Sea between China and other nations are a major source of tensions. Beijing claims the right to expand its military presence in the disputed areas. The rich fishing grounds and potentially energy-rich seabed around the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam, have seen Chinese Navy boats pursue and stop Vietnamese fishing trawlers, seize the vessels and detain the crews in Vietnamese territorial waters.
In September, China detained nine Vietnamese fishermen and their boat, releasing them only after repeated formal requests from Hanoi.
China rejects international arbitration in matters concerning its territorial integrity. In Hanoi, Chinese Defence Minister, General Liang Guanglie said that not all disagreements should be handled in a group discussion; similarly, cooperation within multilateral frameworks does not mean settling “all security issues”.
One result is that, increasingly, many Southeast Asian nations see the United States as a bulwark to counter China’s power, especially at sea.
Washington has tried to help find a solution that would meet everyone’s expectations, whilst reasserting its right to be present in the South China Sea and nearby areas. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that territorial disputes should be solved through regional talks in lieu of China’s one-on-one negotiations.
The ASEAN defence ministers meeting in Vietnam yesterday gave participants an opportunity to engage in high-level bilateral meetings. The United States was able to renew talks with China after Beijing brought them to a sudden stop eight months ago in protest against Washington’s decision to sell arms to Taiwan.
For Mr Gates, military cooperation between the two powers was too important to be derailed by political issues. “The dialogue between the two militaries ought to be sustainable regardless of the ups and downs in the relationship," he said.
Still, no one expects any breakthrough from this first meeting. Nevertheless, all parties agree that talking is already a step in the right direction.
Disputed areas also include the Spratly Islands, claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, China and Taiwan, and the Scarborough Shoal, claimed by the Philippines and China.
After their dispute over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, Japanese and Chinese officials also met in Hanoi.