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Minister of Defence Peter MacKay responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 24, 2013.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ottawa is tiptoeing into Asia's tense maritime disputes, pressing Beijing to submit its vast territorial claims to UN arbitration.

Canada faces a delicate balancing act in raising the disagreements over tracts of the South China Sea and its islands and resources. The Harper government wants to expand trade with both sides: Beijing and its neighbours in Southeast Asia's 10-nation ASEAN bloc.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, on a swing through Asia in which he has lobbied for a Canadian seat at an ASEAN-led conference of Pacific defence ministers, said Canada can play an "honest broker" role to defuse the tensions.

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At a meeting Monday with China's National Defence Minister, General Chang Wanquan, Mr. MacKay said he warned of the dangers of escalating disagreements and urged Beijing to submit the disputes to international talks.

"I did speak to my counterpart today about just that: the need to try to bring back a rules-based discussion," Mr. MacKay said. in a telephone interview from China.

"The United Nations is the place to sit down and have frank and meaningful discussions, rather than risk escalation. Which is what was expressed by some countries – Vietnam, and certainly the Philippines."

Canada is not the first country to ask Beijing to refer its disputes to an international panel. The United States and other western nations have called for arbitration. China has consistently refused, insisting it is merely asserting its sovereignty, and that the disputes are bilateral matters to be discussed with its neighbours – all smaller. Mr. MacKay acknowledged that nothing had changed when he raised the issue.

But the face-to-face meeting with Gen. Chang comes as the Harper government is on a campaign to burnish its credentials as a country with a role in Asia – including an increasing military presence, but also a kind of "neutrality" that it can use to defuse tensions.

Mr. MacKay's trip to Asia was aimed in part at lobbying for a seat in a regional conference, known as ADMM-plus, that brings together defence ministers from ASEAN and other Pacific nations. Ottawa wants to join because the event is seen as more than just a defence meeting. It is viewed as a major forum for regional diplomacy, and a stepping stone to other organizations, like the 18-nation East Asia Summit. That greater political presence in Asia could further Canada's trade interests.

Mr. MacKay is making the case that Canada has a role to play, through an expanded military presence and diplomacy.

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"This is another forum where Canada brings a fresh perspective. Canada can, in some cases, view these irritants and issues in our traditional role of being an honest broker, and perhaps to de-escalate some of the tension that appears to be on the rise," he said.

Mr. MacKay said he heard "considerable chafing" from southeast Asian nations like Vietnam and the Philippines over China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and its naval buildup on Saturday, when he attended the Shangri-La Dialogue, a major Asian security conference, in Singapore.

Those concerns have prompted Asian nations to seek closer military co-operation with the United States. Beijing has viewed the increasing U.S. military role in the region suspiciously, as an attempt to contain Chinese influence.

Canada, Mr. MacKay said, has also "dialled up" its military presence in the region, increasing its participation in military exercises and exchanges, including a move to admit Vietnam to the Canadian Forces foreign-military-training program.

But Mr. MacKay said said he had no sense that China is wary of what Canada is doing: its officials know Canada is trying to expand its presence in Asia generally, not just though its military.

"I don't think that they view Canada with any degree of suspicion," he said. "It's not, clearly, only militarily that we are ramping up our efforts. It's happening diplomatically, it's happening economically. It's happening in ways which are of mutual benefit."

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"That further engagement is a recognition of the fact that China is now our second-largest trading partner, with even greater potential for more trade. It's a recognition of the fact that China itself is playing, and stepping into, a larger role on the world stage."

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