U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that Asian sea disputes should be resolved peacefully through negotiations, words meant as reassurance after a series of maritime incidents involving China rattled nerves.
Gates said regional claims over disputed maritime territory should be resolved in accordance with international laws of the sea.
"We don't take sides in this," Gates told reporters in Hanoi. "We don't have any territorial claims of our own."
The comments come as defense ministers from Southeast Asia meet with their counterparts from eight other countries in Vietnam. Gates met with a high-ranking Chinese military official Monday, ending a freeze on military exchanges after China broke off contacts to protest a U.S. arms package for Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own territory.
Gates told reporters afterward he accepted an offer by Chinese Gen. Liang Guanglie to visit Beijing. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the visit would probably come early in 2011.
China had yanked an earlier invitation to Gates and suspended military contact with the United States in January.
The heating of territorial disputes in Asian waters follows a series of aggressive moves by China on the high seas. The latest spat erupted last month with Japan over a collision between a Chinese trawler and two Japanese patrol boats off disputed islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.
Japan detained the Chinese boat captain, enraging Beijing. He was eventually released, and last week the two countries agreed to resume high-level talks, but each continues to claim the territory.
Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa met with his Chinese counterpart in Hanoi on Monday and asked for cooperation on the creation of a communication system that could be used following maritime accidents, according to Japan's Defense Ministry.
"All these disputes should be resolved peacefully and through arbitration and negotiation," Gates said, adding that in the case between Japan and China, the U.S. would fulfill treaty obligations to support Japan.
Separately, China would not confirm that a port call by a Japanese naval training ship scheduled for later this month would take place.
The Chinese minister only responded by saying "I've heard about that," neither affirming nor rejecting the request, the ministry official said.
"Even though we were not fully prepared for talks, the fact that the defense ministers from the two countries could hold talks was a step forward," Kitazawa told reporters.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh confirmed on the meeting's sidelines that China had ended another maritime incident on Sunday by releasing nine Vietnamese fishermen who were detained last month while operating in waters near the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea.
Last week, Vietnam demanded that the fishermen be released immediately without conditions. China had refused to send the sailors home until the captain paid a fine for having explosives aboard the boat. Vietnam denied the allegation, saying the boat was only carrying fishing equipment. Both countries, along with Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, claim sovereignty over all or part of the islands.
Associated Press writers Tran Van Minh in Hanoi and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.