HANOI - In many ways this week's ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus Eight in Vietnam is reason to celebrate, like Thanksgiving dinner for a far-flung and fractious family. Bring defense ministers from around Asia together with their counterparts from Australia, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Russia, China and the United States. Engage in "spirited" and "frank" conversation. Just don't talk about disagreements and disputes, and for goodness sake don't say anything that might make Cousin China or Uncle Sam storm out.
Thus when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates held a private bilateral meeting with his Japanese counterpart, there was no mention of the international crisis between Tokyo and Beijing over a recent incident involving a Chinese fisherman and a Japanese coast guard boat near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Likewise, in Gates' bilateral talks with Vietnam, the matter of Hanoi's own disputes with Beijing over islands in the South China Sea went unmentioned. No one expects Korea to raise the sensitive issue of China's backing of North Korea after its unprovoked sinking of a Korean warship earlier this year. Nor has there been any mention of U.S. concerns about China's currency valuations.
Such is China's rapidly rising status in Asia that most of the nations present are just happy to have it at such a large and multilateral table. Beijing usually prefers to deal with its regional neighbors on a one-to-one to basis, the better to leverage its outsized heft. That the United States is present to balance the guest list and encourage China to watch its table manners is widely welcomed.
"Though they did not come up specifically in my meetings today, I think recent tensions [in the South China Sea] are clearly on everybody's mind, and that falls under the rubric of maritime security, which we will be discussing," Gates told reporters. "Given the magnitude of China's imports of energy and raw materials, I think we have a shared interest in freedom of navigation and access to the maritime domain, so my hope is we will come to a common understanding of those mutual interests and work together."
Any understanding with China about accepted rules for the maritime commons, however, has been elusive. That's one reason Gates is pressing his Chinese counterparts to reestablish military-to-military engagements that were suspended by Beijing over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
"In talking to my Chinese counterpart, I told him that at times when we have disagreements, it's more important that we have an ongoing strategic dialogue, not less," said Gates. Regardless of the ups and downs in the broader relationship, he argued, the two militaries need to maintain a sustained dialogue.
"The greater clarity and understanding that brings is essential to avoiding mistrust and miscalculation," he said. "I believed that during the decades we kept up a dialogue with the Soviet Union, and I still believe it. In reality, the secretary of Defense doesn't even make the decision in respect to arms sales to Taiwan. That is fundamentally a political decision. And holding our military-to-military relationship hostage to a political decision is a curious policy, and wrong in my view."