China's Military Chiefs Lecture the Visiting U.S. Defense Secretary

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, left, during a tour in Beijing on April 9 Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is visiting Beijing, and yesterday he got an earful about China’s favorite bête noir: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Chinese are waging rhetorical war against Japan’s nationalist leader, who spent much of last year traveling around the region and courting support from other Asian countries that feel threatened by China’s rise.

Now Hagel enters the scene after having dared to express support for Japan—and criticism of China—shortly before arriving in Beijing. That evidently was too much for some Chinese military officials. After meeting the Pentagon boss, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan made sure to emphasize China’s determination to stick to a hard line in the dispute with its longtime rival. “We will not compromise, nor concede, nor trade on territory and sovereignty,” he said, according to a report in the official China Daily newspaper.

Hagel may have been hoping for some sign of flexibility from the Chinese in their dispute over a collection of deserted rocks in the East China Sea, but Chang said he shouldn’t bother. “We will not tolerate these being infringed upon,” the Chinese defense chief declared, “even the least bit.”

And Chang wasn’t the only official souring Hagel’s welcome. Fan Changlong, one of the country’s top military officials, reprimanded Hagel for criticizing China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. “I can tell you, frankly,” the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission told Hagel, “the Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks.”

The men running the People’s Liberation Army have good reason to be in a testy mood. China has territorial disputes with many of its neighbors, some of which are treaty allies of the U.S., and as China attempts to throw its weight around its backyard, the U.S. is there to backstop these rivals.

And it’s not just U.S. support for Japan that irks Chinese leaders. The Philippines, one of several Southeast Asian countries with territorial disputes with China, is another American ally. President Benigno Aquino’s government took to the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration on March 30 to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea. The response from Beijing was to dismiss the court’s authority to hear the case in the first place.

That plays into the hands of Japan’s Abe, who wants other Asian countries to join Japan in standing up to China. The rejection of the Court of Arbitration’s authority feeds the impression that a country that decides to annex the entire South China Sea and declare an air-defense zone in the East China Sea just wants to play by its own rules. “China’s refusal to join the arbitration will cost it both from a legal standpoint and public-opinion view,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political & Electoral Reform in Manila, told Bloomberg News. “It will be viewed by the global community as a rogue state that doesn’t recognize international law.”

Compare China’s treatment of the court with the way Japan has reacted to a legal setback of its own. The day after the Philippines made its argument to the Court of Arbitration, the International Court of Justice, another United Nations body that meets in the Hague, ruled that Japan must halt its annual whale hunt in the Southern Ocean. The Japanese government quickly announced it was calling off next year’s hunt. Japan, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Koji Tsuruoka, will “abide by the judgment of the court as a state that places great importance on the international legal order.”

The whale hunt was already an embarrassment for the Japanese, so Abe is probably relieved an outside court has given him a reason to call it off. At the same time, the court provided a welcome opportunity for Abe to show that Japan, unlike a certain neighbor, is an Asian power that’s ready to follow international law.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.