Using unusually strong language, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck
Hagel told an Asia-Pacific security forum that the United States was
committed to its geopolitical rebalance to the region and "will not
look the other way when fundamental principles of the international
order are being challenged".
"In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral
actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea," he said in the
speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
Hagel said the United States took no position on the merits of rival
territorial claims in the region, but added: "We firmly oppose any
nationís use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to
assert these claims."
Hagel later held a bilateral meeting with the deputy chief of staff
of the Chinese army, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, who
expressed surprise at his comments.
"You were very candid this morning, and to be frank, more than our
expectations," Wang said at the start of the meeting. "Although I do
think those criticisms are groundless, I do appreciate your candor Ö
likewise we will also share our candor."
In Beijing, President Xi Jinping said China would not initiate
aggressive action in the South China Sea but would respond if others
did, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
"We will never stir up trouble, but will react in the necessary way
to the provocations of countries involved," Xinhua quoted Xi as
saying in a meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Najib Razak of
Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tokyo perceived an
"increasingly severe regional security environment".
"It is unfortunate that there are security concerns in the East and
South China Seas," he said. "Japan as well as all concerned parties
must uphold the rule of law and never attempt to unilaterally change
the status quo by force."
China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Seas,
and dismisses competing claims from Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, the
Philippines and Malaysia. Japan has its own territorial row with
China over islands in the East China Sea.
Tensions have surged in recent weeks after China placed an oil rig
in waters claimed by Vietnam, and the Philippines said Beijing could
be building an airstrip on a disputed island.
Japan's defense ministry said Chinese SU-27 fighters came as close
as 50 meters (170 feet) to a Japanese OP-3C surveillance plane near
disputed islets last week and within 30 meters of a YS-11EB
electronic intelligence aircraft.
On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Singapore forum that
Tokyo would offer its "utmost support" to Southeast Asian countries
in their efforts to protect their seas and airspace, as he pitched
his plan for Japan to take on a bigger international security role.
In a pointed dig at China, he said Japan would provide coast guard
patrol boats to the Philippines and Vietnam.
Wang, China's deputy chief of staff, criticized Abe for the remarks,
the semi-official China News Service said.
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"When Mr Abe spoke just now, there was a veiled criticism targeted
at China," Wang said in Singapore, the agency said. "These
accusations are wrong and go against the standards of international
He also snubbed an offer for talks with Japan made by Defence
"This will hinge on whether the Japanese side is
willing to amend the erroneous policy towards China and improve
relations between China and Japan," he said. "Japan should correct
its mistakes as soon as possible to improve China-Japan ties." The
strong comments at the Shangri-La Dialogue come as Abe pursues a
controversial push to ease restrictions of the post-war, pacifist
constitution that has kept Japan's military from fighting overseas
since World War Two.
"Japan intends to play an even greater and more proactive role than
it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world something
more certain," he said.
Despite memories of Japan's harsh wartime occupation of much of
Southeast Asia, several countries in the region may view Abe's
message favorably because of China's increasing assertiveness.
The United States, having to implement cuts to its vast military
budget at a time of austerity, is keen to see allies play a greater
role in security and Hagel gave an enthusiastic U.S. endorsement to
"We ... support Japanís new effort ... to reorient its Collective
Self Defense posture toward actively helping build a peaceful and
resilient regional order," Hagel said.
Hagel repeatedly stressed Obama's commitment to the Asia-Pacific
rebalance and said the strong U.S. military presence in the region
"To ensure that the rebalance is fully implemented, both President
Obama and I remain committed to ensuring that any reductions in U.S.
defense spending do not come at the expense of Americaís commitments
in the Asia-Pacific," he said.
In spite of his strong criticisms of China, Hagel said the United
States was increasing military-to-military engagement with Beijing
to improve communication and build understanding.
"All nations of the region, including China, have a choice: to unite
and recommit to a stable regional order, or, to walk away from that
commitment and risk the peace and security that has benefited
millions of people throughout the Asia Pacific, and billions around
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jeremy Laurence)
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