Singapore - The United States warned China on Saturday to
halt destabilising actions in Asia as Washington and its allies sought to boost
defence co-operation in the face of what Japan called an "increasingly
severe" security environment.
Using unusually strong language, US defence secretary Chuck
Hagel told an Asia-Pacific security forum that the United States was committed
to its geopolitical rebalance to the region and "will not look the other
way when fundamental principles of the international order are being
"In recent months, China has undertaken destabilising,
unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea," he said
in the speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
Hagel said the United States took no position on the merits
of rival territorial claims in the region, but added: "We firmly oppose
any nation's use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert
Regional security concerns
Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tokyo
perceived an "increasingly severe regional security environment".
"It is unfortunate that there are security concerns in
the East and South China Seas," he said. "Japan as well as all
concerned parties must uphold the rule of law and never attempt to unilaterally
change the status quo by force."
China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China
Seas, 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.
Tensions have surged in recent weeks after China placed an
oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, and the Philippines said Beijing could be
building an airstrip on a disputed island.
Japan's defence ministry said Chinese SU-27 fighters came as
close as 50 metres to a Japanese OP-3C surveillance plane near disputed islets
last week and within 30 metres of a YS-11EB electronic intelligence aircraft.
On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Singapore
forum that Tokyo would offer its "utmost support" to Southeast Asian
countries in their efforts to protect their seas and airspace, as he pitched
his plan for Japan to take on a bigger international security role.
In a pointed dig at China, he said Japan would provide coast
guard patrol boats to the Philippines and Vietnam.
In Beijing, President Xi Jinping said China would not
initiate aggressive action in the South China Sea but would respond if other
countries did, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
"We will never stir up trouble, but will react in the necessary
way to the provocations of countries involved," Xinhua quoted Xi as saying
in a meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia.
The strong comments on China at the Shangri-La Dialogue come
as Abe pursues a controversial push to ease restrictions of the post-war,
pacifist constitution that has kept Japan's military from fighting overseas
since World War Two.
"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," he said.
China has said Abe's government was using the islands
dispute as an excuse to revive its military.
"He has made it into a bigger issue - that is China as
a country is posing a threat to Japan as a country," Fu Ying, Beijing's
chief delegate to the forum, said on Friday.
"He has made such a myth. And then with that as an
excuse, (he is) trying to amend the security policy of Japan, that is what is
worrying for the region and for China."
Despite memories of Japan's harsh wartime occupation of much
of Southeast Asia, several countries in the region may view Abe's message
favourably because of China's increasing assertiveness.
The United States, having to implement cuts to its vast
military budget at a time of austerity, is keen to see allies play a greater
role in security and Hagel gave an enthusiastic US endorsement to Abe's speech.
"We ... support Japan's new effort ... to reorient its
Collective Self Defence posture toward actively helping build a peaceful and
resilient regional order," Hagel said.
Hagel repeatedly stressed Obama's commitment to the
Asia-Pacific rebalance and said the strong US military presence in the region
"To ensure that the rebalance is fully implemented,
both President Obama and I remain committed to ensuring that any reductions in
US defence spending do not come at the expense of America's commitments in the
Asia-Pacific," he said.
In spite of his strong criticisms of China, Hagel said the
United States was increasing military-to-military engagement with Beijing to
improve communication and build understanding.
"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 around the world."