SINGAPORE—US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused China Saturday of “destabilising actions” in the South China Sea and warned that Washington would not “look the other way” if international order is threatened.
But a top Chinese military official blasted the United States for making “threats” and condemned Hagel for making them to a public audience of fellow defense chiefs, diplomats and security experts attending the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.
At the same time, Vietnam has prepared evidence for a legal suit challenging China’s claim to waters off the Vietnamese coast and is considering the best time to file it, according to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
Stressing US commitments to allies in Asia, Hagel called for a peaceful resolution of international disputes and issued a blunt message to China, which was represented by a high-level military delegation at the forum in Singapore.
“In recent months, China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Hagel said in his speech.
He accused China of restricting the Philippines’ access to Scarborough Shoal, putting pressure on Manila’s long-standing presence in Second Thomas Shoal, beginning land reclamation at various locations and moving an oil rig into disputed waters with Vietnam.
Hagel said that while the United States 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 said.
Tensions have recently flared up in the South China Sea, claimed almost entirely by China, which has lately taken bold steps to enforce what it says are its historical rights. Four Southeast Asian states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – claim parts of the sea, with Manila and Hanoi being the most vocal in opposing China’s claims. Taiwan is the sixth claimant.
In the latest tensions, Vietnam accused Chinese warships Thursday of pointing weapons at their vessels during an escalating standoff near an oil rig in contested waters. There have also been ramming incidents involving boats from both sides lately.
The Philippines and China are locked in a bitter dispute over the control of islets and reefs in the sea, which straddles vital shipping lanes and is believed to sit atop vast gas deposits.
In 2012, the Philippines lost control of rich fishing grounds in Scarborough, about 220 kilometres (135 miles) off its main island, to China after a standoff.
Manila in May publicly accused Beijing of large-scale reclamation activity at Johnson South Reef. Filipino officials fear this could lead to China building its first airstrip in the disputed region.
The Philippines asked a United Nations tribunal in March to declare what Manila said was China’s claim to 70 percent of the sea as illegal. Beijing has refused to participate in the tribunal proceedings and repeatedly rejected protests by China and Vietnam.
China is also in dispute with Japan over islands in the East Sea, which Tokyo calls Senkaku and Beijing refers to as Diaoyu.
Last year, China declared an air defense identification zone in the East Sea, including over the outcrops, which are under Japan’s administration.
In his speech, Hagel reiterated that the United States opposes “any effort by any nation to restrict overflight or freedom of navigation, whether from military or civilian vessels, from countries big or small”.
He pledged support for Japan’s plans to play a greater role in maintaining security in Asia.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, opened the forum Friday by saying Tokyo would play a more “proactive” role in Asian security as the leader sets about reshaping the rules for the country’s little-used military.
Hagel also pledged support to countries that are moving towards democracy, notably Myanmar, but said Washington would review ties with those curbing democratic freedoms.
But the deputy chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Wang Guanzhong described Hagel’s comments as baseless, and condemned him for making them to a public audience attending the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.
“This speech is full of hegemony, full of incitement, threats, intimidation,” Wang was quoted as saying by a reporter from state broadcaster China Central Television.
“This speech is completely non-constructive and moreover is public, several times criticising China by name, and these kinds of accusations are completely without basis, without reason,” Wang said.
Tensions have recently flared in the South China Sea, claimed almost entirely by China, which has lately taken bold steps to enforce what it says are its historical rights.
He added the value of the Shangri-La Dialogue was to encourage exchanges, sometimes blunt, between governments and think-tanks but China should not be accused without basis.
China has sought to counter Washington’s foreign policy “pivot” to Asia, but it has also angered Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines – the latter two US allies – with what those countries say are aggressive moves in separate maritime rows.
Relations between China and Vietnam have worsened after Beijing sent a deep-water oil drilling rig into contested waters in the South China Sea.
Vietnam has prepared evidence for a legal suit challenging China’s claim to waters off the Vietnamese coast and is considering the best time to file it, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said on Saturday.
“We are prepared and ready for legal action,” Dung said, sitting in the prime minister’s compound in Hanoi in front of a bronze bust of Ho Chi Minh, the founder of communist Vietnam. “We are considering the most appropriate timing to take this measure.”
Dung, 64, spoke four days after a Vietnamese fishing boat sank in a collision with a Chinese ship in an area near the disputed Paracel Islands where China has placed an oil rig.
A legal filing would follow a case against China submitted by the Philippines to a United Nations’ court over contested shoals off its coast.
Dung, who faces pressure from citizens calling for a strong response to China’s oil rig maneuver, risks damaging economic ties with his bigger communist neighbor if he chooses to go down the legal route.
A suit by Vietnam, though, would add to pressure on China to submit to arbitration in the South China Sea where it is asserting control in a push to gain greater access to the area’s oil, gas and fish.
If open conflict were to erupt in the South China Sea, “there will be no victor,” Dung warned, saying that two-thirds of global maritime trade passes through shipping lanes in the area. “Everyone will lose,” he said. “The whole world economy will be hurt and damaged immeasurably.”
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