Defense Secretary Hagel spars with China over territorial disputes

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, meets with Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, right, China's deputy chief of General Staff on May 31, 2014,  in Singapore. Getty Images

SINGAPORE - The U.S. "will not look the other way" when China and others try to restrict navigation or ignore international rules and standards, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said Saturday at an international security conference.

He said China's territorial claims in the South China Sea are destabilizing the region and that Beijing's failure to resolve such disputes threatens East Asia's long-term progress.

A Chinese general took issue with Hagel's comments, saying that "although I do think that those criticisms are groundless, I do appreciate your candor."

Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the General Staff, told Hagel during a brief meeting after the defense secretary's speech, "You were very candid this morning and, to be frank, more than our expectation."

Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu told The Wall Street Journal "the Americans are making very, very important strategic mistakes right now" in their approach to China."

"If you take China as an enemy, China will absolutely become the enemy of the U.S.," Zhu warned, according to the Journal. "If the Americans take China as an enemy, we Chinese have to take steps to make ourselves a qualified enemy of the U.S. But if the Americans take China as a friend, China will be a very loyal friend; and if they take China as a partner, China will be a very cooperative partner."

Reporters were taken from the meeting room before Hagel responded. But Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Hagel told Wang that all regional disputes should be solved through diplomacy, and Hagel encouraged China to foster dialogue with neighboring nations.

As he did in 2013, Hagel used his appearance at the Shangri-La conference to single out China for cyberspying against the U.S. While this has been a persistent complaint by the U.S., it was less than two weeks after the Obama administration charged five Chinese military officers with hacking into American companies to steal trade secrets.

The Chinese, in response, suspended participation in a U.S.-China Cyber Working Group, and released a report that said the U.S. is conducting unscrupulous cyberespionage and that China is a major target.

Noting the suspension, Hagel said the U.S. will continue to raise cyberissues with the Chinese "because dialogue is essential for reducing the risk of miscalculation and escalation in cyberspace."

In comments aimed directly at China, Hagel said the U.S. opposes any country's use of intimidation or threat of force to assert territorial claims.

"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 of people around the world," he said.

China and Japan have been at odds over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by both.

The U.S. has declined to take sides, but has made clear it has a treaty obligation to support Japan. The U.S. also has refused to recognize China's declaration of an air defense zone over a large swath of the East China Sea, including the disputed islands.

In response, Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of China's People's Liberation Army questioned whether the U.S. and its allies followed international law and consulted with others whey they set up air defense zones.

Yao, director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the PLA's Academy of Military Science, also challenged how the U.S. can say it is not taking a position on the island sovereignty issue, while still saying it is committed to its treaty obligation to support Japan.

Hagel said the U.S. and allies consulted with its neighbors and, unlike China, did not unilaterally set up air defense zones.

U.S. officials also have raised concerns about Beijing's decision to place an oil rig in part of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam. The move has led to a series of clashes between the two nations in the waters around the rig, including the recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.

Chinese leaders have blamed the Obama administration's new focus on Asia for emboldening some of the disputes.

But some Asian leaders have expressed worries that the U.S. is doing little more than paying lip service to the complaints, fueling doubts about America's commitment to the region.

In an effort to address those concerns, Hagel also used his speech to reassure Asia-Pacific nations that despite persistent budget woes and increasing demands for military aid across Africa and Europe, the U.S. was strongly committed to Asia.

Allies have questioned how serious the U.S. is about its renewed focus on Asia, particularly as the recent unrest in Ukraine and terrorist threats in North Africa have garnered more attention. Also, President Barack Obama's national security speech this past week made no mention of the Asia-Pacific.

"The rebalance is not a goal, not a promise or a vision - it is a reality," Hagel said.

He laid out a list of moves the U.S. has made to increase troops, ships and military assets in the region, provide missile defense systems to Japan, sell sophisticated drones and other aircraft to Korea, and expand defense cooperation with Australia, New Zealand and India.

Hagel said the U.S. is continuing to reach out to China. Despite persistent differences, Washington and Beijing have been trying to improve their military relations, expand communications between their forces and conduct joint exercises.

"Continued progress throughout the Asia-Pacific is achievable, but hardly inevitable," Hagel told the audience at the Shangri-La Dialogue. "The security and prosperity we have enjoyed for decades cannot be assured unless all nations, all our nations have the wisdom, vision, and will to work together to address these challenges."

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