U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is attending the two-day meeting of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where he will hold military talks with Chinese Gen. Liang Guanglie — the first between the countries in eight months after China cut off contact to protest a U.S. arms package for Taiwan.

The United States is concerned that the newly heated territorial disputes could hurt access to one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes.

In addition to meeting the Chinese general, Gates will meet with delegates from some of the small nations that want U.S. support to counter the growth of China as a regional power.

Pentagon officials traveling with Gates said he will make the same argument about U.S. interests in the Pacific and the limits of Chinese dominion that has infuriated China before. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of sensitive discussions among Southeast Asian defense chiefs.

The gathering, which starts Monday, comes a month after a spat between China and Japan involving a collision between a Chinese trawler and two Japanese patrol vessels 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 the two countries officially announced an end to the dispute last week, but each continues to claim the territory.

Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa planned to meet with his Chinese counterpart in Hanoi, according to Kyodo News agency, in what would be the first military-to-military talks since the incident.

Vietnam last week also accused China of detaining nine of its fishermen last month in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands that are claimed by both countries. Vietnam's Foreign Ministry has demanded that the sailors be released, but China says the boat owner must first pay a fine for fishing with explosives, the ministry said.

China claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly islands, which are also claimed in whole or in part by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

China has become more aggressive in asserting its sovereignty over the disputed areas, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to say in July that it was in the U.S. national interest for the Communist giant to resolve territorial claims in the South China Sea with its neighbors.

The defense meeting brings together the ASEAN countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — along with counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.

By Anne Gearan - The Associated Press - 0ctober 10, 2010