Hagel's strong comments at security summit could see dip in US-China ties

UNITED States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel came out forcefully this morning at the Shangri-La Dialogue to defend the Obama administration's "rebalance" strategy, insisting that its efforts to shift more attention and resources to the Asia Pacific is "a reality", not mere rhetoric.

One could see this as compensating for US President Barack Obama's surprising omission of the "rebalance" strategy, a policy which has been seen as one of the hallmarks of his administration's foreign policy platform, during a key foreign policy speech on Wednesday.

In his 46-minute speech, Mr Obama dwelt at length on efforts to combat terrorism and the judicious use of American military force. But he said relatively little about his administration's Asia policy and did not once mention the word "rebalance", or "pivot", as the strategy is more commonly referred to.

Thus, Mr Hagel's unambiguous remarks could come as welcome assurances for a nervous region worried about the inconsistent messaging by the Obama administration, and its commitment to the Asia Pacific.

But there's a flip side. Mr Hagel's speech today is also notable for some of the harshest, if not confrontational, public remarks on China to date.

Commenting on territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China, the Philippines and Vietnam, Mr Hagel chastised Beijing for undertaking "destabilising, unilateral actions", such as by restricting access to the Scarborough Shoal and by moving an oil rig into disputed waters.

He also criticised China for declaring an air defence zone over the East China Sea last November, adding: "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 have benefitted millions of people throughout the Asia-Pacific, and billions around the world."

Mr Obama, in his speech on Wednesday, also raised - possibly for the first time - the prospects that a conflict in the South China Sea could draw the involvement of US troops.

"Regional aggression that goes unchecked - whether in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world - will ultimately impact our allies and could draw in our military," Mr Obama told graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point.

Beijing has not been taking the criticisms lying down. Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, who is heading the People's Liberation Army delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue this year, told Chinese state television that Mr Hagel's speech was "full of incitement, threats and intimidation".

Lt-Gen Wang added: "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."

These exchanges suggest that a sharp downturn in US-China ties is on the horizon, an outcome which can only increase the already high levels of anxiety in the region.