CHINA, stung by back-to-back criticisms from the United States and Japan at a major security forum here, lashed out at the two allies yesterday and accused them of ganging up to provoke the mainland.
In a nine-minute riposte containing the harshest language ever used by China at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Lieutenant- General Wang Guanzhong of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) said it was both "unacceptable" and "unimaginable" that the US and Japan would attack China so publicly at an open forum.
"The speeches gave me the impression that they coordinated with each other, they supported each other, they encouraged each other and they took the advantage of speaking first, and staged provocative actions and challenges against China," added Lt-Gen Wang, who heads the PLA delegation to this year's talks.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel spoke separately at the dialogue, an annual three-day confab for defence ministers and top generals in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.
In his keynote address last Friday, Mr Abe avoided direct criticisms of China. But he repeatedly used language which Tokyo had employed in criticising Beijing's handling of territorial disputes in the East and South China seas, such as "attempts to change the status quo through force or coercion".
This was not lost on Lt-Gen Wang, who said it did not matter whether Mr Abe named China or not because the audience all knew whom he was criticising.
"Mr Abe should promote constructive suggestions but he went against the purpose of the dialogue and staged provocative actions, and I think that act is not acceptable and not in line with the spirit of this dialogue," the Chinese general added.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry criticised Mr Abe late last Saturday night as well, telling him not to use his speech to "stir up enmity and mislead the public".
As for Mr Hagel, Lt-Gen Wang accused him of abetting "destabilising factors, to create troubles and make provocations".
Mr Hagel used unusually strong language to criticise China last Saturday, labelling Beijing's actions in the South China Sea territorial disputes as "destabilising" and "unilateral". He also offered strong US support for Mr Abe's plans to make Japan a more active player in the region's security, a move opposed by China.
The heated rhetoric at this year's summit was expected, given the rising temperatures over the region's territorial disputes, and an intensifying geostrategic tussle in the Asia-Pacific.
Still, Mr Hagel's and Lt-Gen Wang's remarks raised eyebrows, and prompted questions about whether US-China relations would take a hit from this exchange of harsh words.
Professor Xia Liping of Shanghai's Tongji University said there would "definitely be some real impact" on bilateral ties, but added that both sides have a common baseline in wanting to preserve good relations.
Former US defence secretary William Cohen told The Straits Times that it was no bad thing for both sides to "ventilate their frustrations" given the tension that had been building up.
He added: "We are going through a more difficult time. I don't think there's any question that China and the US need to have a good relationship."
Summing up this year's discussion, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen acknowledged the charged atmosphere but noted that it was better to trade "hard words than other things that follow".
"If there is reflection and resolution, then the Shangri-La Dialogue would have played a very positive role," he added.