BANGKOK — At Asia’s largest security forum, China found itself on the defensive with top officials from several countries, including the United States, Japan and Vietnam, calling on Beijing to moderate its behavior amid maritime territorial disputes in the region.
China was the target of unusually blunt remarks from the U.S. defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, who spoke of a modern world with no boundaries and great opportunities but also “great threats.”
Hagel, in a public speech at a conference in Singapore, noted “China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea.”
“The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged. We will uphold those principals,” he said.
The United States, as Hagel reiterated, takes no stance on the merits of rivals’ territorial claims in the disputed waters.
The defense secretary pointed out China’s restricting the Philippines' access to a shoal, its beginning of land reclamation at various maritime locations and placing an oil rig in waters disputed by both China and Vietnam.
Hagel’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue (organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies) brought quick condemnation from a top Chinese military official.
China Central Television (CCTV) quotes Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, criticizing the American official for making such remarks in public in a speech Wang termed “full of hegemony, incitement, threats and intimidation.”
The Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping telling Malaysia’s prime minister, in a meeting Friday in Beijing, that China will not initiate aggressive action in the South China Sea but will respond if other countries do.
Hagel, in his speech at the Singapore forum, also made an appeal to Beijing for cooperation to confront the threat coming from Pyongyang.
“We must also work more closely together to guard against North Korea’s destabilizing provocations and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs which threaten regional stability and China’s own interests," he said. "The United States is looking to China to play a more active and constructive role in meeting this challenge.”
Reacting to the coup here in Thailand, the U.S. defense secretary called on the country’s generals to restore "power to the people…through free and fair elections."
The United States has already cut military cooperation with the country and is reconsidering additional defense assistance and engagement programs.
Japan’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, in his speech to the Singapore conference called for dialogue with China on territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
Onodera says it is not a question of whether to hold talks with China, as an important neighbor of Japan. Rather he says, Tokyo’s perspective, which has been communicated to Beijing, is that if there are differences then there should be a place to have a proper dialogue.
The conference has made clear Japan’s desire to take on a bigger international security role, despite lingering bitter feelings in Asia towards it because of its aggression in the early 20th century and the country’s post-Second World War pacifist constitution.
The remarks from Japanese officials came as its coast guard said two Chinese coast guard ships entered waters around one of the Japanese-administered Senkakus, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyu islands. It is the 12th entry of official Chinese vessels into the disputed waters this year.
The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, earlier (Friday evening) told the Singapore forum his government will offer its "utmost support" to Southeast Asian countries as they seek to protect their seas and airspace, mostly against China.
Vietnam’s defense minister, speaking of a regional trust deficit, reiterated his government’s demand for China to remove an oil rig from disputed waters.
General Phung Quang Thanh, addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue, called for territorial issues in the South China Sea to be solved through international law and existing agreements. The general says Vietnamese forces, so far, have exercised restraint.
Thanh says Vietnam is looking at the possibility of international arbitration to solve its dispute with China but that would “only be a last resort.”
The defense minister also is indicating Hanoi’s willingness to allow the rotation of foreign military assets at the deep water Cam Ranh Bay, which in the past was used by U.S. forces and, subsequently, the Russian navy.