Experts blast Hagel over 'destabilizing' accusations

Experts blast Hagel over 'destabilizing' accusations
Chuck Hagel, the United States' defense secretary.

Experts have refuted claims by Chuck Hagel, the United States' defence secretary, that China's actions in the South China Sea are "destabilizing" the Asia-Pacific region.

Hagel made the remarks at an regional security forum on Saturday, using unusually strong language that surprised many delegates.

Observers said the finger pointing served as an excuse for Washington to seek closer security relationships with Asian countries in an attempt to maintain its diminishing role amid vast cuts in its military budget.

Washington's long-touted strategic rebalance towards Asia, especially through a policy of increasing the number of its alliances, could endanger the region's stability and integration, which are vital for the global economy, they warned.

The accusations went "beyond our expectations", Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, told reporters shortly after Hagel made his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

"The speech was full of hegemony, incitement, threats, and intimidation," said Wang, the head of the Chinese military delegation. "The speech was completely non-constructive."

During the speech, Hagel threw his weight behind Japan's ambition to take a more active role in regional security, even if that means reorienting the policy of collective self-defence imposed by the country's pacifist constitution.

Hagel stressed Washington's neutrality over rival territorial claims in the region, but bluntly warned China to halt "destabilizing action" in support of territorial claims.

The defence secretary, who made his first visit to China in April, also repeatedly stressed the US commitment to a rebalancing of the Asia-Pacific region, saying that the large US military presence in the region would endure.

Hagel's remarks drew an immediate challenge from Yao Yunzhu, a panelist and director of the Center for China-America Defence Relations at the PLA's Academy of Military Science.

Yao asked how the US can claim not to be taking a position on the issue of island sovereignty while simultaneously confirming its commitment to a treaty obligation to support Japan.

Zhu Chenghu, dean of the Defence Affairs Institute at the PLA National Defence University, said the US is keen to see its allies play a greater role in attempts to contain China.

He called the policy "short-sighted", and said it could raise tensions, lead to an arms race, hinder the integration and development of Asia, and even encourage Japan to break free from its post-war shackles.

Gary Samore, executive director of research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said the US position in Asia is based on its system of alliances. "If we were to abandon our allies, our position in Asia would become very weak," he said.

"The question is whether Beijing and Washington can find a way to accommodate each other's interests," Samore told China Daily.

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