HANOI, Vietnam — The United States will back up small Asian nations who feel bullied by China and will insist on diplomatic solutions to territorial disputes among China and Pacific neighbors, U.S. officials said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Vietnam to reassure jittery Southeast Asian nations that the United States won't cede its longtime role as the pre-eminent military power in the Pacific as Chinese naval ambitions expand.
The United States is concerned that newly heated disputes over Pacific island chains little known to most Americans could hurt access to one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes. Smaller nations complain that China may try to seize the areas outright or assume de facto control with naval patrols.
Gates was seeing a Chinese general Monday, and both were attending an Asian security ministers' meeting Tuesday. Gates will meet separately with delegates from some of the small nations that want U.S. support to counter the growth of China as a regional power.
Pentagon officials traveling with Gates said he will make the same argument about U.S. interests in the Pacific and the limits of Chinese dominion that has infuriated China before.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of sensitive discussions among Southeast Asian defense chiefs.
President Barack Obama and Southeast Asian leaders recently reiterated support for a peaceful resolution of the disputes, which some fear could set off Asia's next conflict.
The United States is trying to persuade China that it would be better off with smoother, more regular contacts between the two militaries. Their relationship has been fitful and mostly superficial for years, in contrast to closer economic and political cooperation.
China broke off military ties altogether early this year in protest of proposed U.S. arms sales to China's rival Taiwan worth more than $6 billion. China disinvited Gates for an expected visit to China, and a Chinese general confronted him about Taiwan during another security meeting in June.
The chill has begun to thaw. China has agreed to restart some lower-level military discussions this month, and senior Chinese leaders have indicated they want broader engagement.
"This is something we believe we both need. It is to both our benefits to have this kind of ongoing dialogue," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters traveling with Gates.
Peaceful international resolution of the island disputes is a major theme of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations security ministers' gathering here.
Beijing was furious after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told another ASEAN forum in July that the peaceful resolution of disputes over the island groups was in the American national interest.
Beijing said Washington was interfering in an Asian regional issue.
The disputed territories include the Spratlys, claimed in whole or in part by Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam — plus China and Taiwan. Also contested are Scarborough Shoal, claimed by the Philippines and China, and the Paracel Islands, disputed by China and Vietnam.
Although largely uninhabited, the areas are believed to sit atop vast reserves of oil and natural gas. They straddle busy sea lanes and are rich fishing grounds.
The conflicting claims have occasionally erupted into armed confrontation. Chinese forces seized the western Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 and sank three Vietnamese naval vessels in a 1988 sea battle.
China's claim of control over of ocean far from off its coastline is also a point of friction with the U.S. naval ships have played high-stakes chicken with Chinese boats in waters the U.S. considers international.