SINGAPORE (AP) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned an international security conference Saturday that the U.S. "will not look the other way" when nations such as China try to restrict navigation or ignore international rules and standards.
China's territorial claims in the South China Sea are destabilizing the region, and its failure to resolve disputes with other nations threatens East Asia's long-term progress, Hagel said.
Later, a top Chinese general took issue with Hagel's comments during a brief meeting with the Pentagon chief.
Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the General Staff, told Hagel, "You were very candid this morning and, to be frank, more than our expectation." He added, "although I do think that those criticisms are groundless, I do appreciate your candor."
Reporters had to leave the room before Hagel responded. But Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Hagel told Wang that all regional disputes should be solved through diplomacy, and he encouraged China to foster dialogue with neighboring nations.
For the second year in a row, Hagel used the podium at the Shangri-La conference to call out China for cyberspying against the U.S. While this has been a persistent complaint by the U.S., his remarks come less than two weeks after the U.S. charged five Chinese military officers with hacking into American companies to steal trade secrets.
The Chinese, in response, suspended participation in a U.S.-China Cyber Working Group, and released a report that said the U.S. is conducting unscrupulous cyber espionage and that China is a major target.
Noting the suspension, Hagel in his speech said the U.S. will continue to raise cyber issues with the Chinese, "because dialogue is essential for reducing the risk of miscalculation and escalation in cyberspace."
In a string of remarks aimed directly at China, Hagel said the U.S. opposes any nation's use of intimidation or threat of force to assert territorial claims.
"All nations of the region, including China, have a choice: to unite, and recommit to a stable regional order, or, to walk away from that commitment and risk the peace and security that has benefited millions of people throughout the Asia-Pacific, and billions of people around the world," he said.
China and Japan have been at odds over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by both.
The U.S. has declined to take sides on the sovereignty issue but has made clear it has a treaty obligation to support Japan. And the U.S. has also refused to recognize China's declaration of an air defense zone over a large swath of the East China Sea, including the disputed islands.
His remarks drew an immediate challenge from Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of China's People's Liberation Army, who questioned if the U.S. and its allies followed international law and consulted with others whey they set up air defense zones.
Yao, director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the PLA's Academy of Military Science, also challenged how the U.S. can say it is not taking a position on the island sovereignty issue, while still saying it is committed to its treaty obligation to support Japan.
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