U.S. Joins Japan in Asserting Strength to Seek China Seas Talks

The U.S. and Japan vowed to resist any attempts to seize disputed territory in Asia by force as they called for increased dialogue with China to prevent clashes in waterways vital to world trade.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore yesterday that the U.S. “stands firmly against any coercive attempts to alter the status quo” in seas off China’s coasts. He also sought to reassure China that moves by the U.S. to shift military resources to Asia didn’t amount to a containment policy.

“How can the U.S. assure China of our intentions -- that’s really the whole point behind closer military to military relationships,” Hagel said in response to a question from a Chinese delegate at the event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “We don’t want miscalculations and misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and the only way you do that is you talk to each other.”

The world’s three biggest economies have struggled to agree on rules for operating in the seas and resolving territory disputes, raising tensions across the region as China’s military strength grows. President Barack Obama is due to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California on June 7 amid disputes over cyber-espionage, Iran’s weapons program and Syria’s civil war.

‘Increasingly Severe’

Japan, a U.S. ally, boosted defense spending for the first time in 11 years to defend its territory in an “increasingly severe security environment,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told the forum yesterday. He said Japan, while committed to pacifism, may create a National Security Council and wants to establish a regional body at the “earliest possible timing” to prevent crises over incidents at sea.

“We sometimes hear criticism that Japan is abandoning its identity as a ’peace-loving nation’ and is attempting to challenge the existing international order,” Onodera said. “These views are a total misperception. The aim of the aforementioned initiatives is to enable Japan to make a more proactive and creative contribution toward regional stability.”

Hagel sought to reassure Asian allies yesterday that budget reductions won’t derail U.S. commitment to their security. A year after the Pentagon said it would “rebalance” its strategy to focus more on the region after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department faces as much as $500 billion in cuts over the next nine years as part of a deficit-reduction law.

Military Shift

Hagel met separately at the forum with defense officials from Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and China. In his speech he cited new U.S. defense capabilities, including using lasers to defend ships at sea and putting remotely piloted aircraft on aircraft carriers, while expounding on plans to shift 60 percent of naval assets to Asia by 2020.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung warned on May 31 that miscalculations may disrupt the estimated two-thirds of global trade that moves through the South China Sea as countries compete for fish, oil and gas.

“A single irresponsible action or instigation of conflict could well lead to the interruption of such huge trade flow, thus causing unforeseeable consequences not only to regional economies, but also to the entire world,” he said.

Japan’s purchase last year of East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China led to Chinese protests and roiled trade ties. Anti-Japan demonstrations reduced China sales at Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co.

’Not Convinced’

Chinese military officials at the forum pushed back against the U.S. and Japan. Major-General Yao Yunzhu, director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Science within the People’s Liberation Army, said U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Asia were “detrimental” to establishing trust with China.

“U.S. government officials have on several occasions clarified that the rebalance is not against China,” Yao told Hagel yesterday during a question-and-answer session. “However, China is not convinced.”

Even as he used the forum to seek closer ties with China, Hagel accused the country of waging cyber attacks. “The United States has expressed our concerns about the growing threat of cyber intrusions, some of which appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military,” he said.

Sensitive Data

China’s reported attempts to obtain sensitive U.S. military data as well as commercial intellectual property through electronic espionage have been highlighted repeatedly by Defense Department and White House officials. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said in March that China is waging a “large scale” computer campaign to steal trade secrets.

Chinese officials would like to exchange views with Hagel at the meeting, particularly on cybersecurity, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing on May 31.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the U.S. wants more military exchanges with China to overcome a lack of trust between the forces. In the past year, China observed U.S.-Philippine military maneuvers, joined a counter-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden and received an invitation to take part in the Pacific’s largest multicountry Naval deployment.

“We are not in a Cold War,” Locklear said. “Certainly we don’t desire that with our Chinese partners.”

Sea Law

The lack of trust between the countries stemmed in part from different interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, known as Unclos, Chinese Senior Colonel Zhou Bo said at a session with Locklear yesterday. China opposes U.S. military patrols within its exclusive economic zone, an area stretching 200 nautical miles from land.

“Unclos is not a holy bible,” Zhou said. “It’s not impeccable. It’s basically an important international law, but it’s a result of compromises.”

The Philippines asked the UN in January to rule on its maritime disputes with China, which moved to take control of Scarborough Shoal a year after a standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships. The land feature is about three times closer to the Philippines than China, the Philippines said in an arbitration note.

Countries can avoid serious incidents at sea by agreeing to resolve disputes according to Unclos, Junichi Ihara, a Japanese foreign ministry official, said at the forum.

“Every country has to refrain from trying to change the status quo by force or coercion,” Ihara said. “That is the bottom line.”

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