HANOI (Reuters) - Asian nations appeared to be moving to ease the risk of an immediate crisis over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where concern has risen over China's growing military reach and assertiveness.
At Asia-Pacific defense talks in Hanoi on Tuesday seven nations including the United States, Vietnam and Japan raised concern about the maritime region where China and others have competing territorial claims, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters.
But Chinese officials appeared to brush off the concerns, which came as Vietnam announced that China had freed nine Vietnamese fishermen it detained near the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea, the latest row involving China over its territorial claims in the region.
"It's their problem, not our problem," said Guan Youfei, deputy head of the foreign affairs office of China's Defense Ministry.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, addressing the Asian defense chiefs, said territorial disputes posed a growing challenge to regional stability, and cautioned against the use of "force or coercion" to settle them.
Still, crisis concerns were easing, a second senior U.S. defense official said.
"I would say we feel that there is less of a sense of immediate crisis today," the official told reporters traveling with Gates, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Countries concerned about disputes in the South China Sea were "trying to think their way and feel their way toward a more positive approach," he said.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim parts of the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea. China claims most of the maritime area, through which over half of the world's oil tanker traffic sails.
Even though the South China Sea was raised repeatedly, China was not raised explicitly as the source of friction.
"Nobody was singled out," Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of South East Asian Nations, said of the talks.
"They agree that the region is straddling communication, shipping and transport lanes ... and therefore it is important to maintain peace and stability and security -- including free and open and secure navigation."
Territorial friction further north grabbed headlines last month when 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. China denied that.
Gates told the ministers the United States did not take sides on competing territorial claims.
"Competing claims should be settled peacefully without force or coercion," Gates said.
Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie reiterated China's position that its policies were defensive and not meant to challenge or threaten anyone. The security situation in the region was "generally stable," he said.
"China is positive and open to regional security cooperation," he said in prepared remarks.
China has in the past said the South China Sea is a matter of "core" interest, which analysts say puts the issue on a par with the Tibet and Xinjiang regions, as well as Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of China.
Senior Defense Ministry official Guan said the issue of the South China Sea was "mentioned" not "raised" formally, implying that in China's eyes it was a non-issue.
The second U.S. official said he believed there was debate in Beijing about the "core" interest issue.
"They now, in at least some of our interactions with them, appear to have backed away from the core interest argument and seem to be seeking other ways to articulate their approach to these issues," the U.S. official said.
Gates has moved to revive military ties with China, which Beijing had cut-off for most of the year over the Obama administration's proposed $6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan. Gates met his Chinese counterpart on Monday in Hanoi, the first top-level defense meeting since Beijing lifted the freeze.
Gates accepted an invitation to visit China but Beijing warned the U.S. position on Taiwan was an impediment to "wider and deeper bilateral defense relations."
Editing by Robert Birsel