Tensions between China and the US were on full display on Tuesday as US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel faced questions in Beijing about Washington’s position in bitter territorial disputes with regional US allies.
Chinese Minister of National Defense Chang Wanquan (常萬全), standing side-by-side with Hagel, called on the US to restrain ally Japan and chided another US ally, the Philippines.
Then, Hagel was sharply questioned by Chinese officers at the National Defense University. One of them told Hagel he was concerned that the US was stirring up trouble in the East and South China Seas because it feared someday “China will be too big a challenge for the United States to cope with.”
“Therefore you are using such issues ... to make trouble to hamper [China’s] development,” the officer said.
Hagel assured the audience that the US had no interest in trying to “contain China” and that it took no position in such disputes, but he also cautioned repeatedly during the day that the US would stand by its allies.
“We have mutual self-defense treaties with each of those two countries,” Hagel said, referring to Japan and the Philippines. “And we are fully committed to those treaty obligations.”
The questioning came just a day after Hagel toured China’s sole aircraft carrier, in a rare opening by Beijing to a potent symbol of its military ambitions.
Chang called Hagel, the top civilian at the Pentagon, the first foreign military official to be allowed on board the Liaoning.
Chang and Hagel spoke positively about improving military ties and announced steps to deepen them. However, the effort could do little to mask long-standing tension over a range of issues, from cyber spying and US arms sales to Taiwan to China’s military buildup itself.
At a seminar in New York, Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai (崔天凱) said Washington needed to think hard about the purpose of its military presence in Asia and whether its political agenda and those of its Asian allies were the same.
He spoke of the need to move away from “outdated alliances” and warned against any attempt to create an Asian version of the NATO military alliance to contain China.
“If your mission there is to contain some other country, then you are back in the Cold War again, maybe,” he said. “If your intention is to establish an Asian NATO, then we are back in the Cold War-era again. This is something that will serve nobody’s interest, it’s quite clear.”
Beyond developing an aircraft carrier program, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is building submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles, and has tested emerging technology aimed at destroying missiles in mid-air.
That expansion carries risks as Chinese forces come into greater contact with US forces the Pacific, Hagel said.
“As the PLA modernizes its capabilities and expands its presence in Asia and beyond, American and Chinese forces will be drawn into closer proximity — which increases the risk of an incident, an accident, or a miscalculation,” Hagel said in a speech at the National Defense University. “But this reality also presents new opportunities for cooperation.”
The risks of a mishap were highlighted in December last year when the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens had to take evasive action in the South China Sea to avoid hitting a Chinese warship operating in support of the Liaoning.