Hanoi: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday called on Asian-Pacific defence chiefs to avoid resorting to "force or coercion" to settle territorial disputes, in a veiled warning that appeared aimed at China.
He also said territorial disputes and maritime claims were a growing challenge to stability in the region.
But Gates, in remarks at a meeting of defence ministers in Vietnam`s capital Hanoi, avoided singling out China by name -- a possible gesture toward rebuilding still-fragile US defence ties with Beijing.
"The United States does not take sides in competing territorial claims, such as those in the South China Sea," Gates said. "Competing claims should be settled peacefully without force or coercion."
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim parts of the potentially oil and gas rich South China Sea. Beijing effectively claims the whole maritime area.
Territorial frictions with China further north grabbed headlines last month after Japan detained the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with Japanese patrol vessels off disputed islands.
Beijing suspended some contact with Tokyo in response and industry sources said it halted shipments of rare earth metals vital for electronics and car parts, despite China`s denials.
"Disagreements over territorial claims and the appropriate use of the maritime domain appear to be a growing challenge to regional stability and prosperity," Gates said in a closed-door session, according to prepared remarks.
Mentions of maritime security and territorial claims are a clear nod in the direction of growing concerns about China`s expanding military reach and muscular reaction to maritime territory disputes, including in the South China Sea.
Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie reiterated China`s position that its policies were defensive and not meant to challenge or threaten anyone, and said the security situation in the region was "generally stable”.
"China is positive and open to regional security cooperation," he said in remarks prepared for the Asia-Pacific defence ministers` meeting, calling for more security dialogue.
Gates appeared to echo comments at a similar forum in July by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which irked Beijing, about the US’ "national interest" in freedom of navigation.
"The United States has always exercised our rights and supported the rights of others to transit through, and operate in, international waterways," he said.
In late July, Chinese naval forces carried out drills in the disputed southern waters amid tension with Washington over its drills with South Korea`s military.
Rebuilding US-China ties
US officials including Gates have expressed frustration with the on-again, off-again relationship with China`s military, whose rapid build-up has raised eyebrows in Washington.
A Pentagon report released in August said Beijing was expanding its military edge over Taiwan, increasing the lethality of its short-range ballistic missiles.
"As we improve our military capabilities, we must discuss these developments together," Gates said.
Gates has made rebuilding ties with Beijing a priority, and accepted an invitation to visit China during talks with Chinese counterpart on Monday.
They were the first top-level meeting between the two nations` defence chiefs since Beijing lifted a freeze on military ties, imposed early this year after the Obama administration`s proposed USD 6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan.
US arms sales Taiwan has added to a litany of strains between the world`s biggest and second-biggest economies, including the value of China`s currency, trade protectionism, Internet freedoms and Tibet.