United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel yesterday sharply criticised China for "destabilising, unilateral actions" in asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea and warned that Washington would not look the other way when fundamental principles of international order are being challenged.
In an hour-long speech before defence ministers, top-ranking military officials and security experts gathered for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mr Hagel also defended the US' Asia policy, saying its signature rebalance strategy was already a "reality" and not just talk.
In unusually pointed remarks, Mr Hagel said: "In recent months, China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea. It has restricted access to Scarborough Reef, put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal, begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations, and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands."
Asia has witnessed a steady spike in territorial tensions in the East and South China Seas over the last two years. In the latest spats, Beijing riled Hanoi when it sent a mobile oil drilling rig into waters also claimed by Vietnam. Manila has testily accused China of reclaiming land on a disputed reef. Japan and China have scrambled jets and accused each other of sea incursions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to which they both lay claim.
Mr Hagel said plainly that the US would not be a bystander if international norms were flouted. "We firmly oppose any nation's use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert those claims. The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged."
China delivered a swift response to Mr Hagel's comments. At a bilateral meeting with Mr Hagel shortly after the speech, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Chinese army, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, said China had been taken aback by Mr Hagel's "candour" and promised to be as candid.
Central Television quoted him as saying: "This speech is full of hegemony, incitement, threats, intimidation." He took issue with Mr Hagel's public criticism of China by name and called his remarks non-constructive and baseless.
In Beijing, President Xi Jinping said China would not initiate aggression in the South China Sea but would respond if others did. "We will never stir up trouble, but will react in the necessary way to the provocations of countries involved," he said.
Among the region's analysts, Mr Hagel's words were received with some reservation. Professor Simon Tay, of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Mr Hagel meant to be reassuring, but cuts in the Pentagon's budget and dysfunctional Washington politics meant there were doubts about what the US could actually do.
Australian analyst Sam Roggeveen said it was a "robust reinforcement of America's Asia-Pacific pivot that was missing from President (Barack) Obama's West Point speech earlier this week".
The editor of the Interpreter, a publication of the Lowy Institute, added that the speech sounded "very much like a reinforcement of American intent to maintain military primacy in the region".