U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the conference of Asian defense ministers that the United States has a “national interest in freedom of navigation” in the region, even as China has claimed sovereignty over much of the South and East China Seas and other waters off its coast.
China’s territorial claims have sparked conflicts with Japan, Vietnam, and other Asian neighbors over fishing grounds, islands, and mineral-rich areas. In response, many smaller Asian countries have sought protection and stronger ties with the United States, given its powerful navy in the Pacific.
Days before Gates’ arrival in Asia, China’s navy conducted its first war games with the Australian navy (NYT), to which the United States was not invited. The Chinese navy commander said the United States would not be invited until it until “stops selling the weapons to Taiwan and [stopped] spying us with the air or the surface.” The Pentagon attributes China’s military aggression to a new generation of rising leaders who view the United States as an enemy. China suspended official military relations early this year after U.S. President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama and approved a $6.7 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China regards as its territory. Since then, the Chinese military has thwarted U.S. offers to mediate disputes between China and its neighbors over ownership of Pacific islands and valuable seabed mineral rights. The regional security meeting (FT) is the first to involve such a broad range of high-level participants, but there was little sign the ministers made substantive progress on territorial issues.