HANOI, 12, Oct. 12, Kyodo - Defense ministers of 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region met in Vietnam's capital Tuesday to discuss regional security and maritime matters, including overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The thorny issue surfaced at the inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus, involving the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its eight dialogue partners -- China, India, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.
The one-day meeting, held under the theme of ''Strategic Cooperation for Peace, Stability and Development in the Region,'' was organized to discuss five main topics: maritime security, cooperation in humanitarian and disaster assistance, antiterrorism and piracy, cooperation in military medicine, and cooperation in peacekeeping.
While the issue of unresolved disputes in the South China Sea was not formally on the agenda, diplomatic sources said some participants including those from the United States, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore broached it, despite China's opposition to the issue being ''internationalized.''
Besides China and Taiwan, which claim virtually the entire South China Sea, other parts are claimed by ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the United States, which is not a claimant, does not take sides and hopes for a peaceful solution arrived at through open diplomacy and dialogue.
He said the United States, which has critical interests in the South China Sea in terms of freedom of navigation, is willing to help craft a legally binding ''code of conduct'' that would ensure regional stability, free navigation and peaceful international commerce.
U.S. officials have said Washington does not seek a direct mediating role, but rather it seeks to facilitate an environment where claimants can feel more comfortable in dialogue in a multilateral setting, including ASEAN as a whole.
But China questions U.S. motivations and wants the unresolved claims in the South China Sea to be resolved bilaterally among the claimants, without outside intervention.
According to diplomatic sources, Malaysia was the most active at the meeting in raising the issue, urging that a solution be arrived at in a ''constructive'' manner rather than a ''competitive one.''
It said ''wars of words'' being exchanged between China and the United States are not conducive to a solution, they said.
In his remarks at the ADMM Plus, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said, ''Practical cooperation within multilateral frameworks does not mean settling all security issues, which is not consistent with the principles of gradualism and taking into account the comfort level of all parties.''
''Instead, such practical cooperation should be carried out steadily in areas where all countries have shared needs, common interests, and the willingness to cooperate, where the conditions are ripe,'' he added.
According to diplomatic sources, China was put on the defensive at a recent meeting of the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi when some participants, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, raised the South China Sea issue and called for a multilateral approach.
The sources said China later accused Vietnam of being provocative by using that forum of foreign ministers to ''internationalize'' the maritime dispute, likening its involvement of the United States in the discussion to bringing a wolf into the house.
China also suggested the United States is interested in getting more involved in the matter in order to stir the situation, make it more confused and exploit it for to preserve its ''dominant status.''
The ADMM Plus was preceded by a spat between China and Japan over Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain over maritime collision near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and between China and Vietnam over the former's detention of a Vietnamese fishing boat close to disputed islands.
By Puy Kea
HANOI, Oct. 12, Kyodo - The Cambodian government denied Tuesday it trained any Thai civilians to take part in assassinations in Thailand.
Tea Banh, deputy prime minister and minister of National Defense told Kyodo News in Hanoi, ''There is no such nonsense, training in Cambodia. Why would Cambodia have done that, for what?''
''It is not a new thing, but a repeated claim on this and that (from Thailand),'' Tea Banh added.
He is in Vietnam for the first meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' defense ministers and their dialogue partners from Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.
Thailand claimed Monday, and repeated the charge Tuesday, that 11 men arrested Oct. 2 in Chiang Mai Province received training in firearms in Cambodia.
Police Lt. Col. Payao Thongsen, chief of the Department of Special Investigation, said 39 Thai men were trained in firearms use in Cambodia, allegedly for a mission to assassinate key Thai public figures, including the prime minister.
Payao claimed the 11 suspects confessed they were among the 39 who were recruited and taken by antigovernment leaders to Cambodia, without passing immigration, for three weeks of firearms training at a Cambodian army camp in Siem Reap Province.
The Thai opposition charges Payao's department is simply a political tool of the current government.
But the claim over alleged training in Cambodia is yet another thorn in relations between Phnom Penh and Bangkok.
Cambodia and Thailand have had sporadic border firefights since Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple was listed as a World heritage in 2008 and Cambodian and Thai troops continue to face off in the area.
And relations between the countries plunged when ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was appointed a Cambodian government economic adviser and personal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen in November last year.
Thailand recalled its ambassador and Cambodia followed suit.
Relations only began to thaw after Thaksin resigned from the two posts in August this year and the ambassadors once again took up their posts in Phnom Penh and Bangkok.