Gates To Meet Chinese Defense Chief at ASEAN Meeting
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI – The defense chiefs of China and the United States will meet when Vietnam hosts the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers Meeting Plus Eight, or ADMM+8, in Hanoi on Oct. 12.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie are to hold a “short but significant” meeting, said Guan Youfei, deputy director of the Foreign Affairs Office of China’s Ministry of Defense.
The chiefs have not met face-to-face since China canceled bilateral military exchanges in January after the U.S. released a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.
The ADMM+8 will include 10 ASEAN members and eight dialogue partners, including China, India, Japan, South Korea and the United States.
The meeting follows July’s contentious 17th ASEAN Regional Forum, where U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasize a multilateral approach to regional problems. That’s the tack favored by most ASEAN members, who have felt alienated and isolated by China’s preference for bilateral efforts. Clinton herself said that an unnamed country in the South China Sea — a clear reference to China — was using “coercion.” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called Clinton’s stance an “attack.”
Many observers predict that China will come to ADMM+8 with new tactics that downplay South China Sea issues, including its controversial March announcement that the sea is now a “core interest” on par with Taiwan and Tibet.
“The Chinese side has already stated that the ADMM Plus is not an appropriate venue in which to discuss the South China Sea dispute, and this is in line with Beijing’s opposition to the ‘internationalization’ of the problem,” said Ian Storey, an ASEAN specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Storey said China’s recent assertive behavior in the sea will make the issue difficult to ignore, but he said ASEAN states will be “careful not to antagonize” Beijing. Instead, they will hope instead that China will “recalibrate its position and follow through on its commitments to implement the  ASEAN-China Declaration of the Conduct of Parties” in the South China Sea, which China has made no progress on implementing, he said.
For their part, U.S. officials will tread lightly, offering a long-term, multilateral view without dominating the discussions, said Carlyle Thayer, an ASEAN specialist at the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Academy.
“There is an overlap in security cooperation activities, and deft leadership by the U.S. could result in streamlining what is presently a chaotic process,” Thayer said.
U.S. officials have said they will not play a central role in South China Sea issues.
“The U.S. can be expected to push the line it has been consistently advocating: resumption of military-to-military talks with China, and that territorial disputes over maritime areas should be settled peacefully,” he said.
If anyone has a serious problem with China’s territorial claims, it is Vietnam. The countries have been bumping into each other in the South China Sea since the 1970s, but in the past year or so, China has been doing most of the bumping.
The ADMM+8 will open next week to calls on China to release nine Vietnamese fishermen arrested by China near the disputed Paracel Islands. China took the Paracel Islands by military force in 1974 from then-South Vietnam.
The conflict has not been forgotten in Vietnam, nor has a 1988 military conflict in the South China Sea over the Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands: China reportedly sank two Vietnamese naval vessels and killed more than 60 troops.
A video documentary widely aired in Vietnam, dubbed the “Spratly Islands Massacre,” available on YouTube, purportedly shows a Chinese frigate gunning down around 30 Vietnamese soldiers on the reef.
Angst in Hanoi over Chinese aggression in the South China Sea has encouraged many in the U.S. government to consider Vietnam a potential ally in waiting.
Officials from the Pentagon and U.S. defense companies have been pouring into Vietnam over the past year, U.S. sources say, looking for opportunities as China continues to aggravate Vietnam.
The result is a new push to lift restrictions on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam, blocked by International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
U.S. enthusiasm could be dampened by pressure on Congress from Vietnamese-American groups still bitter over the Vietnam War, and by human rights organizations who want to place conditions on better relations with Vietnam.
Despite the hurdles, U.S. government officials are clearly upbeat on improved relations.
“This year marks the 15th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations, and we should take pride in how far we’ve come,” a U.S. government official said. “Today, U.S.-Vietnam defense relations are positive and robust, based in mutual trust, understanding, and respect for independence and sovereignty. Both countries share a commitment to a stable and peaceful Southeast Asia region and a common approach to transnational issues.”
The U.S. official said the countries might seek an “increasingly robust defense relationship, particularly in the areas of dialogues and information exchanges, peacekeeping, ... and maritime security.”
But the situation is more complex than China’s bullying driving Vietnam under the U.S. security umbrella, said Frederick Brown, a foreign policy fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
“China is more important to Vietnam than the U.S. in the short term,” Brown said. “They don’t want to appear they are participating with the U.S. in a containment strategy against China in a hostile fashion.”
Vietnam is attempting to recast itself as a regional power, he said, taking on a “coloration of a Southeast Asian mini-power through ASEAN and [the ASEAN Regional Forum] through a very extensive number of multilateral relationships on the economic, political and military level in Southeast Asia.” Brown said this is Vietnam’s best defense: “They have to be part of something bigger.”