Pentagon chief's visit exposes US-China divide

Pentagon chief's visit exposes US-China divide
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (left) and his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan shake hands prior to their meeting at the Chinese Defense Ministry headquarters in Beijing April 8, 2014. Beijing will not act first to "stir up troubles" over island disputes with neighbours, China's defense minister said.

BEIJING - Visiting US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chinese military chiefs traded warnings and rebukes Tuesday as they clashed over Beijing's territorial disputes with its neighbours, North Korea's missile programme and cyber espionage.

Both sides were clearly at odds over a litany of issues, despite Hagel and his counterpart General Chang Wanquan calling for more dialogue between the world's strongest and largest militaries, with the American coming under hostile questioning from a roomful of People's Liberation Army officers.

One member of the audience told Hagel the United States feared China's rise and was sowing trouble among its Pacific neighbours to "hamper" Beijing because one day "China will be too big a challenge for the United States to cope with".

The Pentagon chief denied the US was trying to hold China back but the tough questioning contrasted with the deferential reception given to his predecessor Leon Panetta at a similar event two years ago.

Hagel faced a blunt reprimand in an earlier meeting with a senior officer, General Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission, according to an account from the official state news agency Xinhua.

Referring to critical comments by Hagel earlier in his Asia trip, Fan said the "Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks".

Hagel's press secretary acknowledged the two "shared a very frank exchange of views".

In his speech at the PLA National Defence University, Hagel confronted several disagreements head on, scolding China for its support of North Korea while warning against "coercion" in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbours in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Amid rising tensions between China and Japan as well as the Philippines, Hagel emphasised Washington's military alliance with Japan and other Asian partners, saying: "Our commitment to allies in the region is unwavering."

Simmering disputes

China and Japan are embroiled in a bitter row over disputed islands administered by Tokyo in the East China Sea, raising concerns of a potential armed clash between the Asian powers.

And in the South China Sea, the Philippines is at odds with China over a disputed reef, where Beijing recently tried to block a boat ferrying supplies to Filipino troops in the area. China also has disputes with Vietnam and others in the area.

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