China and its Asian neighbors as well as the U.S. are taking tentative steps to ease tensions after months of escalating turmoil over competing territorial and maritime claims.
Vietnam said Tuesday that China had released nine Vietnamese fishermen it detained near disputed islands in the South China Sea, and U.S. officials said they believed Beijing may be rethinking its approach to the sensitive area.
The moves follow steps by China and Japan to ease tensions over a naval collision last month between vessels from the two nations near East China Sea islands that are claimed by both countries.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, attending an Asia defense summit in Hanoi, said competing claims and disputes in the South China Sea appeared to be a 'growing challenge to regional stability and prosperity,' but pointed to what he called encouraging initial signs of progress toward setting binding ground rules to avoid miscommunication and conflict.
At Tuesday's gathering in Hanoi of defense chiefs from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, the U.S. and six other countries raised concerns about disputes in the South China Sea. But senior U.S. officials who attended the closed-door session said China's response appeared muted, at least initially, in contrast to a July session in which Beijing reacted with hostility to similar U.S. language.
A senior U.S. defense official said the Chinese, at least in some recent meetings, appeared to have 'backed away' from characterizing the South China Sea as a 'core' interest and may be seeking to find 'other ways to articulate their approach' to the disputed waters.
Officials at China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no immediate comment. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said in a speech to the Asean conference that Beijing is open to regional security cooperation.
'China pursues a defense policy that is defensive in nature,' he said, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. Participants said he didn't directly refer to South China Sea disputes in the speech.
Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei each claim parts of the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea. Beijing effectively claims almost the whole maritime area. The seven countries that raised South China Sea concerns at the Asean meeting were Australia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, the U.S. and Vietnam, U.S. officials said.
Earlier this year, Beijing had characterized the South China Sea as one of its 'core national interests' -- on a par with Tibet and Taiwan -- meaning it saw no room for compromise, though some officials have questioned whether that was a formal position.
Washington has sought in recent weeks to contain growing tensions in the region and U.S. officials said they took China's participation in the summit as an encouraging sign that it may be taking a more open-minded approach, though they remained cautious.
The U.S. officials provided few details about how they reached their conclusion that the Chinese leadership may be rethinking how to address South China Sea disputes. In the past, U.S. officials have acknowledged their limited ability to assess Beijing's intentions because of the government's secrecy and opaque decision-making process, and Mr. Gates has pointed to signs of a rift between China's military and its political leadership on other issues.
'It does appear that the countries that are concerned about [South China Sea disputes] are trying to think their way and feel their way towards a more positive approach, towards a more constructive approach,' the senior U.S. defense official told reporters traveling with Mr. Gates.
'We feel like. . .there is less of a sense of immediate crisis today,' the official added.
Senior U.S. officials sought to play down Washington's future role in trying to sort out competing claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. is prepared to offer help to the parties but doesn't expect to play a direct mediating role, they said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton infuriated Beijing in July when she told an Asean meeting in Hanoi that the U.S. had a national interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
At Tuesday's Asean meeting, Mr. Gates echoed her comments, warned against trying to settle the maritime disputes using force or coercion, and said the U.S. will continue to exercise its right to operate in international waters and conduct military exercises with allies, a sore point for Beijing. But he stopped short of criticizing China directly.
In a meeting Monday with his counterpart, Mr. Liang, Mr. Gates appeared to seek to keep a lid on simmering U.S.-China tensions by not explicitly raising the South China Sea issue. Mr. Gates said the bilateral talks centered instead on what he described as the importance of re-establishing military ties.
China froze military relations in January to protest Washington's decision to sell up to $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, which appeared to remain the biggest hurdle for Beijing to establishing more stable ties with the U.S.
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