SINGAPORE - US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on Saturday reiterated Washington's commitment to Asia as he warned against any provocations from an increasingly assertive China.
He was speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a forum that brings together defence and security experts and officials from Asia, the United States and Australia.
Issuing a blunt message to China, which has been locked in territorial and maritime disputes with several countries in the region, Mr Hagel said the US will not remain passive if the international order is threatened.
"In recent months, China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea," America's top defence official told the forum organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"We firmly oppose any nation's use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims," said Mr Hagel while stressing that the United States does not take sides on rival claims.
"The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged," he said.
Mr Hagel's comments came a day after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the same forum that Tokyo would offer its “utmost support” to Southeast Asian countries in their efforts to protect their seas and airspace.
Mr Hagel also laid out Washington's priorities in the region which include enhancing the defence capabilities of its allies.
Mr Hagel, who is in Asia for the fifth time in a year, reassured the audience that the US is maintaining its leadership role in the Asia-Pacific.
"Rebalancing to Asia-Pacific is not a goal, not a promise, not a vision. It is a reality."