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
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
“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
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.
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
To contact the reporters on this story:
Gopal Ratnam in Washington at
Sharon Chen in Singapore at
Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Rosalind Mathieson at
Hagel Says China"s Actions in South China Sea Destabilizing