SINGAPORE — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered a sharp warning for China to cease using “intimidation and coercion” to press its claims in the South and East China Seas and drop its self-declared overflight restrictions, or risk destabilizing a region populated by billions.
“The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged,” Hagel said.
Hagel’s rebuke on China led his lengthy keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday, the premier annual conference of Asia-Pacific defense ministers. The territorial standoff in the South and East China Seas was a top agenda item in nearly all of Hagel’s individual meetings with defense counterparts on Friday. Hagel said the region should work toward a “rules based order” and noted China is working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) toward an agreed naval code of conduct for the seas. But the dispute, and Hagel’s rebuke, falls amid a period of improved military-to-military relations with China that the Pentagon has fought hard to thaw since at least 2009 and is eager to maintain. “Our dialogue is becoming more direct and more constructive…getting at the real issues and delivering more results.”
“One of the most critical tests facing the region is whether nations will choose to resolve disputes through diplomacy and well-established international rules and norms or through intimidation and coercion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the South China Sea, the beating heart of the Asia-Pacific and a crossroads for the global economy.
“China has called the South China Sea ‘a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.’ And that’s what it should be,” Hagel continued. “But in recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea. It has restricted access to 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.
“The United States has been clear and consistent. We take no position on competing territorial claims. But we firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims.”
In an interview with Japanese television, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said China’s use of its military complicates things for the worse, according to the Pentagon’s internal news service. “That’s not a positive outcome… We have to confront the fact that that is a path that will inevitably lead to less stability and probably make a diplomatic solution far more complicated.”
Hagel is scheduled to meet with the China’s Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the General Staff, later Saturday. He also has bilateral meetings with counterparts from Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, and Japan, and a trilateral meeting with Japan and South Korea.
The Obama administration’s “rebalance” to the Pacific is now a “reality,” Hagel insisted, giving his justification for the time, money and military resources the United States is investing in the region. Hagel listed the weapons the U.S. is moving into the region, including Global Hawk drones and missile defenses for South Korea, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for Australia and Japan, and two more ballistic missile defense in Japan, in addition to increasing U.S. ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska. Hagel also said the U.S. plans to increase foreign military financing by 35 percent and international military education and training, or IMET, by 40 percent by 2016.
Defense Department officials in recent years have tried to lay a foundation to move to the region beyond the hub-and-spoke structure of alliances established in the past century, and this conference is a key site for those discussions. It is unclear, though, to what end. A dream of some may be one day to see an Asian version of NATO. But in the nearer term, a senior defense official said, there is a sense of change among the Asian defense community. What the U.S. wants to see happen is more Asian defense leaders engaging in face-to-face meetings with each other toward collective security, progress building off the ASEAN defense minister’s meetings of the past year, and to get India, usually only a footnote in talks of Asia-Pacific security, “to look east.”