SINGAPORE – China denounced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Sunday for “provocative” remarks accusing Beijing of taking destabilizing actions in contested Asian waters.
Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, told an Asian security forum in Singapore that the strong comments made by Abe and Hagel at the conference were “unacceptable.”
Abe had opened the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday by urging countries to respect the rule of law, an apparent warning about what is being perceived as aggressive Chinese behavior in disputed areas of the South China and East China seas.
On Saturday, Hagel warned China against “destabilizing actions” in the South China Sea and listed a number of alleged infractions, including against the Philippines and Vietnam, two of the most vocal critics of Beijing’s claims.
“The Chinese delegation . . . have this feeling that the speeches of Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel are a provocative action against China,” Wang, decked out in full military dress, said in an address to the forum.
Abe left Singapore on Saturday and Hagel departed early Sunday, before Wang spoke. But the Pentagon said Hagel and Wang held a brief meeting on Saturday in which they “exchanged views about issues important to both the U.S. and China, as well as to the region.”
About midway into his prepared speech, in which he said China “will never seek hegemony and foreign expansion,” Wang diverted from the script and accused Abe and Hagel of “coordinating” with each other to attack China.
“This is simply unimaginable,” said Wang, the highest-ranking military official in the Chinese delegation. The U.S. and Japanese speeches were “unacceptable and not in the spirit of this Shangri-La Dialogue,” he said.
“The speeches made by Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel gave me the impression that they coordinated with each other, they supported each other, they encouraged each other and they took the advantage of speaking first . . . and staged provocative actions and challenges against China,” he said.
On Saturday, Hagel issued a blunt message to Beijing, saying that “China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea.”
He accused China of restricting the Philippines’ access to Scarborough Shoal, putting pressure on Manila’s long-standing presence in the Second Thomas Shoal, beginning land reclamation at various locations and moving an oil rig into disputed waters with Vietnam.
Hagel said that while Washington does not take sides on rival claims, “we firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims.”
“The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged,” he warned.
Abe in turn pledged that Japan would play a larger role in promoting peace in Asia as his administration moves to reshape the military’s purely defensive stance. “Japan intends to play an even greater and more proactive role than it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world something more certain,” Abe said.
Beijing and Tokyo are embroiled in a dispute over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in East China Sea. China calls the islets Diaoyu.
Wang, who stressed Beijing’s historic rights to the waters, said he preferred the frankness of Hagel, who directly named China, to Abe, who did not cite any specific country. “If I am to compare the attitude of the two leaders, I would prefer the attitude of Mr. Hagel. It is better to be more direct,” he said.
As the conference drew to a close, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian joined a chorus of senior defense officials in urging rival claimants to show restraint to prevent larger conflicts.
Le Drian proposed working toward an agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a code of conduct to handle disputes in the South China Sea, saying it was “the only way to prevent incidents in that coveted area.”
Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen urged Asian states not to “backslide into a fractious environment, riven by confrontational nationalism and lack of mutual trust.”