Hagel Accuses Beijing of 'Destabilizing, Unilateral Actions'
China asserted a bold vision of itself as the pre-eminent power in East Asia, sparring with the U.S. at a meeting of the world's top defense officials and inflaming tensions with its less-powerful neighbors.
Beijing's stepped-up rhetoric illustrated its view that U.S. power in the region is waning even as China's more-aggressive approach appears to be bringing other nations together to counter its growing military and economic sway.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore over the weekend, a top Chinese military official issued an unusually robust riposte to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who criticized China's "destabilizing, unilateral actions" in the South China Sea, including deploying an oil-drilling platform in disputed waters, among other moves.
Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, the Chinese military's deputy chief of general staff, fired back on Sunday, saying Mr. Hagel's speech was "full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation," and part of "a provocative challenge against China."
Other Chinese officials at the meeting were similarly blunt in their assessment of the U.S.
"The Americans are making very, very important strategic mistakes right now," Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu said in an interview. "If you take China as an enemy, China will absolutely become the enemy of the U.S.," he said.
He went on to tell a Chinese-language broadcaster that U.S. power was declining.
China is feeling increasingly comfortable with the idea that it is Asia's top power, or at least should be treated as an equal of the U.S., and it is engaging in displays to show that the U.S. can do little or nothing to stop it despite America's greater military firepower, according to several experts.
"China is very significantly upping the ante here," said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. "What we're seeing is a steady and sharp increase in the overtones of the strategic rivalry."
Another analyst, who asked not to be named for fear of offending China, said it was remarkable how much other countries' impressions of China had shifted in the space of just a few years.
"You could say, now [the Chinese are] behaving more like a great power,they're behaving with a sense of entitlement, a sense of exceptionalismthe way the Americans have done, and the British before them, as if the rules don't apply to them."
But China also risks overplaying its hand by speaking out so forcefully against the U.S. and its allies.
"China's position is not as strong as it thinks it is," said Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia. Not only do China's more-aggressive actions encourage other countries to band together to counter China's rise, they also make it easier for the U.S. to justify its continued military role in the region, he said.
Some U.S. officials have said privately they hope that China's actions in the South China Sea and its tough language will push America's allies to strengthen ties with one another, and smaller nations to seek stronger ties with the U.S.
But the strategic equation is changing rapidly as China's economic and military power grows. Deepening trade and economic ties between China and its neighbors mean that many Asian countries can't afford to challenge China.
Several weeks ago, a Chinese state-run oil company moved a drilling rig into waters also claimed by Vietnam, sparking riots against Chinese and other businesses in Vietnam, and triggering criticism from Washington and Tokyo about what they see as Beijing's growing disregard for international law.
China defended its actions as normal activities in its own sovereign territory.
Other actions by China that have angered the region include the seizure of the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed area in the South China Sea that is also claimed by the Philippines, in 2012, and a construction project in the disputed Spratly Islands. China has also repeatedly sparred with Japan over rights to disputed East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Despite region-wide concern over these perceived incursions, few nations in the region have the military or economic wherewithal to risk angering Beijing.
The tit-for-tat at the Shangri-La Dialogue was unusual in its frankness. It kicked off on Friday night, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used his speech to denounce unilateral efforts to alter the strategic status quo in Asia, in remarks clearly aimed at China.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked that the Pacific region was becoming less stable because of "coercion and provocation" by China.
China's Gen. Zhu said charges of destabilizing actions by China were groundless. Gen. Zhu accused Mr. Hagel of hypocrisy in his assessment of the region's security landscape, suggesting that in his view "whatever the Chinese do is illegal, and whatever the Americans do is right."
The "Chinese are not so stupid" as to believe that Washington wants to work with China, or that the U.S. government is truly neutral when it comes to territorial disputes between China and American allies, he said.
China's military remains far less powerful than that of the U.S., but its investments in enhanced surveillance and missile-weapons systems means it would be more capable of deterring U.S. advances in the region in the event of a military conflict.
China's military strategists have long seen their country as being hemmed in militarily by a network of U.S. bases and alliances in Asia that are mostly legacies from World War II and the Cold War.
Since the global financial crisis in 2008, many Chinese military officers have perceived an opportunity to use the country's economic strength to change that dynamic. Those officers, and many civilian analysts, also expect that the U.S. would be reluctant to become embroiled in another conflict after extricating itself from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In his speech on Sunday, Lt. Gen. Wang, China's top military delegate at the meeting, said Mr. Hagel's speech was designed to "create trouble and make provocations."
Nevertheless, he said, China is committed to peaceful development and observes proper processes in handling territorial disputes.
"China has never taken the first step to provoke troubles," the general said in comments that he said were deviations from his prepared remarks. "China has only been forced to respond to the provocative actions by other parties."