In a strongly worded salvo aimed at Beijing, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused China of destabilizing the South China Sea and provoking its neighbors by ignoring international rules and trying to restrict navigation.
Hagel also went after China once more for cyberspying, which has been a frequent subject of attack from the U.S., culminating two weeks ago with charges that five Chinese military officers hacked into American companies to steal trade secrets.
Hagel’s comments were part of an ongoing war of words simmering between China and the U.S., particularly after President Obama said a year ago that the U.S. was resetting its foreign policy to pay more attention to Asia.
“In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Hagel said on Saturday from the podium of the Shangri-La conference in Singapore.
“We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims,” he added, referring to the way China has claimed territorial rights over areas of the South China Sea close to Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
“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.”
In threatening language, Hagel said the U.S. would not look the other way when countries such as China tried to restrict navigation or ignore international rules and standards.
Chinese President Xi Jinping responded by trying to play down the conflicts China has inflamed in the area.
“We will never stir up trouble, but will react in the necessary way to the provocations of countries involved,” Xinhua news agency quoted Xi as saying after he met yesterday with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
After Hagel’s comments accusing China of cyberspying, the Chinese responded by suspending their participation in a U.S.-China cyber working group. They also released a report accusing the U.S. of its own unscrupulous cyber-espionage.
Noting the suspension, Hagel said in his speech that the U.S. wouldn’t back off raising these cyber issues with the Chinese “because dialogue is essential for reducing the risk of miscalculation and escalation in cyberspace.”
China and Japan for years have been at odds over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by both. While the U.S. says it’s not taking sides, it pointed out it has a treaty obligation to support Japan. In addition, the U.S. 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.
Major-General Yao Yunzhu of China’s People’s Liberation Army and director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, questioned how the U.S. could say it was not taking a position on the island sovereignty issue, while still saying it was committed to its treaty obligation to support Japan.
Last year China released a defense white paper noting that the U.S. is “adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy,” and claimed China had a duty to protect its sovereignty at a time when it is engaged in territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China and East China Seas.
While strengthening military ties with all three of those countries has become a part of the U.S. foreign military strategy, China believes the efforts to enhance military deployment and strengthen alliances in the region are not conducive to upholding peace and stability, Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said at a press briefing in Beijing.