U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel today spelled out a series of Chinese actions in parts of the disputed South China Sea and said they were destabilizing the region, drawing a rebuke from a Chinese General.
While China has said it wants a “sea of peace, friendship and cooperation,” in recent months it “has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Hagel said in prepared remarks at the annual Shangri-La security conference in Singapore.
“It has restricted access to the Scarborough Reef; put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal; begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations; and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands” off the coast of Vietnam, Hagel said, listing for the first time Chinese infractions in the region that are alarming Southeast Asian nations.
The stepped-up U.S. comments follow Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s appeal for a “stronger voice” from the U.S. against China after clashes between coast guard vessels near the rig placed in contested waters. The Philippines, dwarfed militarily by China, has sought support from the U.S. and the United Nations to counter China’s encroachment into shoals off its coast.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has taken a more assertive approach to its territorial claims. During a visit to Beijing in April, Hagel was told by his counterpart, General Chang Wanquan, that China would make “no compromise, no concessions” in disputes with Japan and the Philippines.
In Singapore today, Hagel said the U.S. “will not look the other way when fundamental principles of international order are being challenged” including moves by China to restrict overflight or freedom of navigation.
U.S.-China military ties have been tested after the U.S. Justice Department indicted five Chinese military officials on charges of economic espionage linked to computer hacking of U.S. nuclear power, metals and solar companies. China has suspended the U.S.-China Cyber Working Group.
Even so, “we will continue to raise cyber issues with our Chinese counterparts, because dialogue is essential for reducing the risk of miscalculation and escalation in cyberspace,” Hagel said.
Taking questions after his speech, Hagel was quizzed by Major-General Yao Yunzhu, director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Science within the People’s Liberation Army, about the U.S. stance over East China Sea islands claimed by both China and Japan. Yao asked if recent U.S. statements about the islands being covered by its defense treaty with Japan were a threat of coercion or intimidation.
“I thought I made America’s position clear in my remarks about the position we take on disputed territories,” Hagel replied. “In fact, I think I repeated our position a number of times.”
Hagel later met Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of general staff of the PLA, who told Hagel his criticism was “groundless” and said the U.S. defense secretary had been “very candid” in his speech.
Speaking separately on China Central Television, Wang said Hagel had “openly pointed” his finger at China in a public setting, according to a summary posted on CCTV’s website. “Secretary Hagel’s speech is full of American hegemony; secondly, it’s full of threats and intimidation; thirdly, it’s full of instigation and incitement, aimed at provoking restless elements in the Asian-Pacific region to stir up trouble.”
Wang also criticized Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe has accused China of trying to change the status quo by force, and in a speech at the forum yesterday set out his policy to broaden the role of Japan’s defense force to be able to come to the aid of allies.
“I feel they’re echoing each other and sang a duet,” Wang said of Hagel and Abe, according to CCTV. “We can see from the Shangri-La Dialogue this year, it’s Japan and the U.S. who stirred up conflict.”
Singapore defense minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters he would rather have sessions at the forum that dealt with the issues “than have token sessions where it’s just motherhood statements and there isn’t direct identification of issues and then we assume that we have had a conference.”
Alongside its dispute with Japan in the East China Sea, China claims much of the South China Sea under its “nine-dash line” map, first published in 1947. The map extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo, taking in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also claim parts of the sea. Law experts have pointed out the lack of legal foundations backing the claims.
“Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of the countries of Asean as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies,” Abe said in his speech yesterday at the forum, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Vietnam has prepared evidence for a lawsuit challenging China’s claim and is considering the best time to file it, Dung said yesterday in an interview.
If open conflict were to erupt in the South China Sea, “there will be no victor,” Dung warned. “Everyone will lose,” he said. “The whole world economy will be hurt and damaged immeasurably.”
Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh said today he has contacted the deputy chair of the military commission of China as Vietnam seeks to communicate with China over the oil rig dispute.
“I hope that in the coming days leaders of the two countries can meet and discuss these disputes,” Thanh said at the Singapore forum. “We still have room for peaceful dialogue.” The legal avenue, he said, would be a “last resort.”
Malaysia Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he is increasingly concerned about tensions in the waters.
“Inflamed rhetoric and mutual recrimination will not do any country any good,” he told the forum in Singapore. World War 1, he said, “was started by sheer accident. That we must avoid for our region as the world focuses in this area.”
Vietnam said China rammed one of its fishing boats on May 26 near the oil rig. The sinking happened two days after Chinese fighter jets flew within tens of meters of Japanese surveillance planes in the East China Sea.
China blamed the boat-sinking on Vietnam and accused Japan of infringing on a no-fly zone it set up for its first bilateral naval exercises with Russia in the East China Sea.
Japanese and Chinese coast guard vessels have tailed one another around the uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, since Japan bought three of them from a private Japanese owner late in 2012. Abe has not held a summit with China since taking office almost 18 months ago.
Two Chinese ships briefly entered Japanese controlled waters this morning near the islands, according to Japan’s Coast Guard.
While the U.S. has repeatedly said its obligation to defend Japan extends to the disputed islands, U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech on defense policy this week that the armed forces can’t be “the primary component of our leadership.”
Hagel today repeated the U.S. pledge to its strategic and economic rebalancing to Asia even as crises in Europe and the Middle East capture America’s attention.
The U.S. remains “committed to ensuring that any reductions in U.S. defense spending do not come at the expense of America’s commitments in the Asia-Pacific,” Hagel said. “The rebalance is not a goal, promise, or a vision – it is a reality.”