U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the United States has a stake in a growing number of disputes about who owns Asian island chains and who has the right to control sea traffic through nearby waters.
Gates avoided mentioning China by name, but Chinese territorial claims and its increasingly aggressive naval actions to support those claims are at the center of many of the disputes.
Gates made his comments in Hanoi where he is attending a security forum with defense officials from the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
He said the United States had "a national interest in freedom of navigation, in unimpeded economic development and commerce, and in respect for international law."
Gates said: "The United States has always exercised our rights and supported the rights of others to transit through, and operate in, international waters. This will not change, nor will our commitment to engage in activities and exercises together with our allies and partners."
Gates was referring, in part, to China's claim to control water far off its coastline that Washington considers open water under international law. He also was reaffirming U.S. support for Asian countries that feel threatened by China and want U.S. backing even as they try to maintain friendly relations with Beijing.
Gates said that the United States was not taking sides in any of the disputes, but he has also urged an international, multilateral approach to resolve the competing claims. China wants bilateral talks so it can negotiate individually with each country that has a competing territorial claim.
The series of disputes involve strategically important or potentially resource-rich islands. Officials from several Asian-Pacific countries have expressed concerns to Gates this week about increasingly aggressive naval moves by China in disputed waters.
For example, Japan has concerns about the events surrounding a collision in the East China Sea last month off of disputed islands that plunged relations between Tokyo and Beijing to a five-year low.
Relations have since improved, but both countries continue to claim sovereignty over the territory -- known in Japan as Senkaku and in China as Diaoyu.
Vietnam and China are engaged in a long-running dispute in the South China Sea over control of the Paracels and a more southerly archipelago, the Spratlys. Since last year, Vietnam has reported numerous cases in which Chinese naval forces have seized fishing boats and equipment.
Taiwan also claims the Paracels and has a claim to the Spratlys along with the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
The United States is worried that territorial disputes over such islands in the South China Sea could imperil strategic international shipping lanes. Some analysts warn that China's newly aggressive moves to claim the areas could ignite a shooting war.
China today has been working to calm the nerves of its jittery Asian neighbors by reassuring them that it wants to work together.
General Liang Guanglie -- one of three Chinese officials considered a counterpart of Gates -- told the ASEAN forum today that any military moves by China's navy in the region were part of a policy that is "defensive in nature."
He said that policy was "not aimed to challenge or threaten anyone, but to ensure its security and promote international and regional peace and stability." He also said mutual trust with China's neighbors was essential for security.
Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh today welcomed China's decision to free nine Vietnamese fishermen held for the past month after they were caught fishing in disputed South China Sea waters near the Paracels Archipelago. Thanh said their release came "unconditionally" and was an expression of China's goodwill.
This week's regional security summit in Hanoi officially began today with the 10 countries in ASEAN, together with military powers China, Russia, the United States, Australia, and India.
On October 11, ASEAN delegates held a preparatory meeting in which they prioritized five defense-related issues. Those include humanitarian assistance and disaster rescue, maritime security, military medicine, counterterrorism, and peacekeeping operations.
Gates had bilateral talks with China's General Liang and Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa on October 11. The issue of the territorial disputes reportedly dominated those meetings.
compiled from agency reports