May 31, 2014 12:40 a.m. ET
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused China of taking “destabilizing, unilateral actions” that undermined the rule of law on the second day of The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) 13th Asia Security Summit in Singapore. European Pressphoto Agency
SINGAPORE—Defense ministers from several Asia-Pacific powers on Saturday voiced their dismay over China’s recent assertiveness in territorial disputes, as regional opinion appeared to coalesce against Beijing’s perceived role in stoking diplomatic tensions.
At an international security summit in Singapore, top defense officials from Australia and Vietnam joined the U.S. and Japan in criticizing—either explicitly or using thinly veiled language—what they saw as China’s unilateral efforts to pursue territorial claims in the East and South China seas.
China has come under increasing criticism from its Asia neighbors since recently deploying an oil-drilling platform in waters claimed by Vietnam, along with other steps to assert its territorial claims. Beijing says its actions are normal activities in areas it considers its own territory—a view challenged by its rivals in those disputes, including members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“We share the serious concerns expressed by Asean over recent developments, which have served to raise tensions and temperature in that region,” Australian Defense Minister David Johnston told the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of top defense and military officials.
“The use of force or coercion to unilaterally alter the status quo in the East China Sea and the South China Sea is simply not acceptable,” said Mr. Johnston, who didn’t explicitly target Beijing in his speech.
Vietnam’s defense minister, Gen. Phung Quang Thanh, meanwhile rapped China for allegedly acting outside of international law by placing an oil-drilling platform in waters that Hanoi claims falls within its exclusive economic zone.
“Vietnam has exercised utmost restraint,” and is seeking “high-level” talks with Beijing to resolve their differences, said Gen. Thanh, adding that Hanoi could seek international legal recourse against China if peaceful dialogue fails to produce results.
Their comments came after top U.S. and Japanese leaders at the summit served up back-to-back criticism of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, arguing that Beijing’s efforts to bolster its territorial claims risk undermining the international order that has underpinned Asian prosperity since the end of World War II.
On Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced what he called unilateral efforts to alter the strategic status quo in Asia, in remarks clearly aimed at China. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel followed his lead on Saturday, directly accusing China of taking “destabilizing, unilateral actions” that undermined the rule of law.
Chinese defense officials on hand at the summit returned the criticism in kind. Major General Zhu Chenghu told The Wall Street Journal that the charges were “groundless” and that “the Americans are making very, very important strategic mistakes right now” in their approach to dealing with China.
Gen. Zhu, who is a professor at China’s National Defense University, accused Mr. Hagel of hypocrisy in his assessment of the region’s security landscape, suggesting that in his view “whatever the Chinese do is illegal, and whatever the Americans do is right.” Another Chinese general grilled Mr. Hagel in a question-and-answer session, challenging him on America’s repeated claim that it does not take sides in territorial disputes.
China did not send its top-level defense officials to the Shangri-La gathering, instead relying on a number of English-speaking academics and PLA officers to rebuff accusations against Beijing.
However, the views they expressed are reflective of a deep sense of mistrust within some parts of the People’s Liberation Army towards the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, and America’s true intentions towards China.
Other Asean defense chiefs at the summit avoided blaming China in their respective speeches, but appealed broadly for regional unity in handling territorial disputes.
“Asean must stand united together on several key defense issues, and not be pulled in different directions,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in a speech.
Mr. Hishammuddin avoided direct criticism of China, but appeared to make a pointed call to Beijing to take steps to ease tensions with Asean. “Major powers must sincerely understand us,” he said.
Write to Chun Han Wong at email@example.com