Maritime disputes, Syria crisis to dominate ASEAN talks

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Defence ministers from Southeast Asia and eight other powers are expected to discuss territorial disputes at sea as well as possible Western military action against Syria when they meet in Brunei on Thursday.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has chosen to go ahead with his scheduled talks in Brunei despite the mounting confrontation with Syria, amid signs the United States, Britain and France are preparing the ground for punitive strikes against the Damascus regime.

The conference includes defence chiefs from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and eight other countries -- Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand, reflecting the growing economic importance of the region.

Known as the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM+), the two-day session, which began on Wednesday, has focused heavily on rival claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

The disputes pit ASEAN members against each other and against China, with many of the countries accusing Beijing of staging a gradual takeover of islets in the area.

Some ASEAN ministers on Wednesday proposed practical steps to avert conflict over the rival claims, including a hotline between ASEAN states and China, exercises to avoid collisions at sea and an agreement on "no first use of force", US officials said.

Southeast Asian governments also have urged the adoption of a code of conduct to prevent violent clashes in the strategic South China Sea, which the United States has endorsed.

China, however, has shown little enthusiasm for the proposal but this year has pledged to take part in future talks with ASEAN on the idea.

On Wednesday, Hagel avoided criticising Beijing and told ASEAN ministers that Washington "does not expect any country to have to choose between the United States and China or any other country," said a US defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hagel met China's defence minister General Chang Wanquan on the sidelines in Brunei on Wednesday, after having hosted him in Washington earlier this month.

Underscoring Washington's strategic tilt to the Asia-Pacific after a decade of war, Hagel invited the ASEAN members to hold a meeting next year in the United States for the first time, and the ministers accepted.

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