The U.S. and Japan called for increased dialogue with China to prevent miscalculations in waterways vital to world trade as territorial disputes raise tensions across Asia.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore today the U.S. would resist "any coercive attempts to alter the status quo" in seas off China's coasts. He also sought to reassure China that moves by the U.S. to shift military resources to Asia did not amount to a containment policy.
"How can the U.S. assure China of our intentions -- that's really the whole point behind closer military to military relationships," Hagel said in response to a question from a Chinese delegate at the event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "We don't want miscalculations and misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and the only way you do that is you talk to each other."
Hagel is aiming to balance concerns among U.S. allies about China's territorial ambitions against a need to cooperate with President Xi Jinping's government in halting North Korea's nuclear weapons program. President Barack Obama is due to meet Xi in California on June 7 amid disputes over cyber-espionage, Iran's weapons program and Syria's civil war.
Japan, a U.S. ally, is seeking to create a National Security Council so it can respond quickly to emergencies, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told the forum. He called for neighboring countries to establish a maritime coordination mechanism at the "earliest possible timing" to prevent crises over incidents at sea.
"The military presence of the United States is indispensable in securing peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region," Onodera said. That presence "serves not only as a deterrent against unforeseen contingencies but also serves to create opportunities for dialogue and cooperation among the regional countries."
Tensions over fish, oil and gas in disputed waters risk disrupting trade among emerging Asian powers that are driving global economic growth. Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung yesterday warned that miscalculations may disrupt the estimated two-thirds of global trade that moves through the South China Sea.
"A single irresponsible action or instigation of conflict could well lead to the interruption of such huge trade flow, thus causing unforeseeable consequences not only to regional economies, but also to the entire world," he said.
Hagel sought to reassure Asian allies today that budget cuts won't derail the U.S. commitment to their security. A year after the Pentagon said it would "rebalance" its strategy to focus more on the Asia-Pacific region after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department faces as much as $500 billion in cuts over the next nine years as part of a deficit-reduction law.
Hagel met separately at the forum with defense ministers of Indonesia and the Philippines, a treaty ally. He cited new U.S. defense capabilities, including using lasers to defend ships at sea and putting remotely piloted aircraft on aircraft carriers, while expounding on plans to shift 60 percent of naval military assets to Asia by 2020.
Chinese officials would like to exchange views with Hagel at the meeting, particularly on cyber-security, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing yesterday.
Hagel was challenged during a question and answer session at the forum today 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.
"U.S. government officials have on several occasions clarified that the rebalance is not against China," Yao told Hagel. "However, China is not convinced."