BEIJING – China hosted Southeast Asian defense ministers on Friday in an effort to burnish its reputation in a region wary of its territorial ambitions, while expectations grow that the U.S. might directly challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
The meeting in Beijing was the first time China has hosted such a gathering. Four of the countries from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations taking part have claims to seas and islands in the South China Sea that clash with Beijing's own.
The meeting was expected to skirt such contentious issues as China seeks to leverage such forums to soften its image. Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan did not directly mention the dispute in his opening remarks, pointing instead to the threats that terrorism, radicalism, natural disasters and major accidents pose to the region.
"China desires cooperation and dialogue with ASEAN defense bodies to together safeguard regional peace and stability and join hands to create a good security environment," Chang said.
Reporters were barred from the rest of the gathering and it wasn't immediately clear what issues were raised.
The informal meeting will be followed by the Xiangshan Forum this weekend, at which analysts, military leaders and others from around the globe will discuss Asian-Pacific security, maritime issues and anti-terrorism.
In a speech at a welcoming dinner Friday night, retired top admiral Sun Jianguo told participants the forum would "contribute more insights and ideas into regional peace and stability."
He was followed by Cambodian President Hun Sen, who praised China's regional leadership and said ASEAN was not suited to negotiate with Beijing on South China Sea issues, reflecting China's preferred approach of negotiating with each disputant individually.
"China wants to use these sorts of forums to promote China's views, explain China's policies and improve China's security image," said regional security expert Li Mingjiang of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.
"Because the meeting is in Beijing, it would be hard for any country to confront China over the South China Sea," Li said. "There's also a lack of solidarity among ASEAN countries over the issue."
Since 2013, China has accelerated its construction of new islands atop reefs and atolls in the South China Sea and is adding buildings and airstrips in apparent attempts to boost its sovereignty claims.
Unidentified Pentagon officials said last week that the U.S. Navy may soon receive approval to sail a ship inside the 12-nautical mile (21-kilometer) territorial limit surrounding China's man-made islands, reported the Navy Times, which is closely affiliated with the U.S. Navy.
ASEAN member the Philippines on Wednesday gave strong backing for such a move.
Sailing within the boundary would mark the first time the U.S. has directly challenged China's territorial claims since 2012 and reinforce Washington's assertion that land reclamation does not add sovereign territory.
The U.S. and its allies, including the Philippines, say the newly made islands threaten stability in an increasingly militarized region. China denies that claim, saying they're mainly intended to benefit the public good.
China has also sparred with Vietnam, another ASEAN member, over ownership of the Paracel island group, leading to a confrontation last year when Beijing moved a massive oil drilling platform into contested waters.
On Thursday, Vietnam accused China of sinking one of its fishing boats near the disputed islands. The incident was apparently motivated by a desire to steal the ship's catch of fish and put it out of commission. There was no evidence that any Chinese government ships were involved, although Beijing's aggressive actions are believed to embolden Chinese fishermen in the area.
China vastly expanded the scope of the Xiangshan Forum last year, making it an annual rather than biennial event and boosting participation to more than 300 defense officials and academics from 47 countries.
With the world's second-largest defense budget, China's military — especially its navy — is gathering formidable capabilities.
It will soon deploy its first aircraft carrier and is rapidly adding advanced destroyers, missile cruisers and nuclear submarines. A massive military parade in Beijing last month showcased new missiles permitting China to hit targets — including U.S. Navy ships and bases — throughout the region.
Along with claiming almost all of the South China Sea's island groups and crucial sea lanes, China is dueling with Japan over ownership of an uninhabited chain of islands north of Taiwan, and in late 2013 declared an air defense zone that would theoretically give it control of aviation over much of the East China Sea. Many analysts believe China is now considering declaring a similar zone over the South China Sea.