Hagel to Meet Xi as China Vows No Compromising on Sea Disputes

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets Chinese President Xi Jinping today after being told the U.S. refocus to Asia won’t contain China or affect its claims to territory and resources disputed with American allies.

China will make “no compromise, no concessions” in disputes with Japan and the Philippines, Hagel’s counterpart in Beijing, General Chang Wanquan, said yesterday.

“We are prepared at any time to cope with all kinds of threats and challenges,” Chang said. “The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.” In response, Hagel stressed the U.S. commitment to its Asian allies and said China had inflamed tensions by setting up an air defense zone over East China Sea islands also claimed by Japan.

Chang’s comments at a briefing with Hagel contrasted with efforts by both ministers to play up agreements on better dialogue and joint operations struck during Hagel’s first visit as defense secretary. The U.S. is seeking to bolster cooperation with China while defusing territorial tensions between the world’s second-largest economy and allies in the region that the U.S. is treaty-bound to defend in case of a conflict.

Chinese ‘Preferences’

“Chang did not hold back in stating the PLA’s grievances - - that was not so much surprising as disappointing,” Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based East-West Center whose work focuses on Chinese security issues, said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army. “It suggests there is strong PLA dissatisfaction, and also pressure on” the leadership to “start using China’s strength to realize Chinese preferences.”

Chang’s frankness also showed some generals may feel emboldened to speak their minds in a high-profile setting, even against the wishes of civilian leaders, Roy said. “Neither of these circumstances is good news for the rest of the region.’

Xi took over as head of the Central Military Commission when he became Communist Party secretary in November 2012. He’s made strengthening the military, including extending its maritime power, a key priority for a revitalized China. The central government will boost defense spending 12.2 percent this year.

Touring Carrier

Hagel toured China’s first and only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, on April 7 and yesterday visited the country’s National Defense University. His trip comes weeks before President Barack Obama travels to Asia to reinforce the U.S.’s commitment to its so-called rebalance to the region.

Despite China’s rhetoric on territorial disputes with Japan and Philippines, Hagel won some key concessions from the PLA with his ship visit, and pledges to continue cooperation between military services, said a senior U.S. defense official speaking on condition of anonymity to be able to discuss bilateral issues.

Joint Exercises

The U.S. seeks military ties with China ‘‘to deepen practical cooperation in areas of common interest, and to manage competition and differences through openness and communication,” Hagel said at the joint briefing yesterday. This year China will for the first time join the U.S. in the Rim of the Pacific exercise, the Pacific Ocean military simulation held every other year. The two countries agreed to step up joint military exercises, improve communication about drills to avoid accidents and boost contacts between their armies.

While Chang also spoke of cooperation, he said the U.S. rebalancing won’t damp China’s ambition.

“With the latest developments in China, it can never be contained,” he said yesterday. The U.S. is “a country of worldwide influence, and the Pacific Ocean is huge enough to hold both China and the U.S. for common development and also huge enough to hold the other Asia-Pacific countries.”

Fishing Grounds

Tensions in Asia have been on the rise as China asserts its military muscle and presses claims to territory and resources disputed with the Philippines and Japan. Chang made it clear that stepped-up cooperation wouldn’t mean that China would soften its position in disputes over islands and fishing grounds in the East and South China seas.

“I’d like to reiterate that the territorial sovereignty issue is China’s core interest,” Chang said, referring to shoals and reefs in the South China Sea claimed by China and Philippines, alongside other Southeast Asian countries. “On this issue, we will make no compromise, no concessions and not even a tiny bit of violation is allowed.”

Although the U.S. seeks better ties with China, those “relations will not come at the expense of our relations with others in the region or elsewhere,” Hagel said in remarks yesterday at the defense university.

Code of Conduct

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is seeking a code of conduct for the oil-and gas-rich waters in the South China Sea, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run. Even so, the talks have made little progress since China agreed last July to start discussions, before introducing fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.

China is prepared to hold bilateral talks over territory and rejected the Philippine move for international arbitration on their claims to the Scarborough Shoal and other parts of the South China Sea, Chang said.

“Great powers must resolve their disputes peacefully and responsibly,” Hagel said. “Strengthening the peace and avoiding conflict requires leadership and it requires cooperation, requires courage, requires reaching out.”