China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are destabilising the region, US defence secretary Chuck Hagel has warned.
He told an international security conference that its failure to resolve disputes with other nations threatens East Asia’s long-term progress.
Mr Hagel said the US “will not look the other way” when nations such as China try to restrict navigation or ignore international rules and standards.
For the second year in a row, he used the podium at the Shangri-La conference in Singapore to criticise China for cyberspying against the US.
While this has been a persistent complaint by the US, his remark came less than two weeks after it charged five Chinese military officers with hacking into American companies to steal trade secrets.
The Chinese, in response, suspended participation in a US-China cyber working group, and released a report that said the US is conducting unscrupulous cyber espionage and China is a major target.
Noting the suspension, Mr Hagel in his speech said the US will continue to raise cyber issues with the Chinese, “because dialogue is essential for reducing the risk of miscalculation and escalation in cyberspace”.
In a string of remarks aimed directly at China, he said the US opposes any nation’s use of intimidation or threat of force to assert territorial claims.
“All nations of the region, including China, have a choice: to unite, and recommit to a stable regional order, or, to walk away from that commitment and risk the peace and security that has benefited millions of people throughout the Asia-Pacific, and billions of people around the world,” he said.
China and Japan have been at odds over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by both.
The US has declined to take sides on the sovereignty issue but has made clear it has a treaty obligation to support Japan.
And the US has also refused to recognise China’s declaration of an air defence zone over a large swath of the East China Sea, including the disputed islands.
His remarks drew an immediate challenge from Major General Yao Yunzhu of China’s People’s Liberation Army, who questioned if the US and its allies followed international law and consulted with others when they set up air defence zones.
US officials have also raised concerns about Beijing’s decision to plant an oil rig in part of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam.
The move has led to a series of clashes between the two nations in the waters around the rig, including the recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Chinese leaders, however, has been equally strong in defending their territorial actions, and have blamed the Obama administration’s new focus on Asia for emboldening some of the disputes.