A senior Chinese general has lashed out at the U.S. and Japan for criticizing Beijing's activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea, calling the comments "provocative."
The exchange between the world's three biggest economies at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a security forum for government officials, military officers and defense experts, were among the most caustic in years at diplomatic gatherings, and could be a setback to efforts to bring ties back on track.
Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of China's general staff, told the security forum on Sunday that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had angered him with their remarks.
In a speech Saturday, Hagel accused China of "destabilizing actions" in the South China Sea. He told defense officials at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue that Washington would not "look the other way" if international order is threatened.
In his keynote address to the forum on Friday, Abe pledged Japan's "utmost support" to Southeast Asian nations in their efforts to ensure the security of their seas and airspace.
Abe also pitched his plan for Japan to take on a bigger international security role. It is part of his nationalist agenda to loosen the restraints of the pacifist post World War Two constitution and to shape a more muscular Japanese foreign policy.
Wang called the remarks a form of provocation towards China and "unthinkable," and said China has never taken the first step to provoke trouble.
It was the first such major conference since tensions have surged in the South China Sea, one of Asia's most intractable disputes and a possible flashpoint for conflict.
Tellingly, despite around 100 bilateral and trilateral meetings taking place over the week, officials from China and Japan did not sit down together.
Philip Hammond, the British defense minister, said Abe's agenda was well-known but provoked a response because it was laid out publicly.
“It's certainly the first time I had heard him articulate it on a public platform in that way,” he said.
Japan's growing proximity to Washington is also a worry for Beijing.
Still, the row is not likely to spill over. The three nations have deep economic and business ties, which none of them would like to see disrupted.
“Relations are definitely not at a breaking point,” said Bonnie Glaser of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and a regular visitor to the dialogue.
“Leaders are aware that their countries have huge stakes in this relationship and they are committed to trying to find areas where interests do overlap, where they can work together.”
Tensions have surged recently in the South China Sea, one of Asia's most intractable disputes and a possible flashpoint for conflict.
China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, and dismisses competing claims from Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Japan has its own territorial row with China over islands in the East China Sea.
Riots broke out in Vietnam last month after China placed an oil rig in waters claimed by Hanoi, and the Philippines said Beijing could be building an airstrip on a disputed island.
Tensions have been rising steadily in the East China Sea as well. Japan's defense ministry said Chinese fighter jets came as close as 50 meters to a Japanese surveillance plane near disputed islets last week and within 30 meters of an electronic intelligence aircraft.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters.