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US allies, China trade barbs in unusually heated Asia summit

SINGAPORE – The heated words exchanged by a United States-allied bloc and China at the Shangri La Dialogue this weekend signal an emerging diplomatic shift on simmering tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, security analysts said Sunday.

During the multinational summit's final day, Chinese Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the Chinese Army's general staff, told the audience he was going off the script of what had been a rather placid speech, to respond to criticisms leveled earlier by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Both Abe and Hagel accused China of using "force and coercion" to intimidate neighboring nations into acquiescing to Chinese claims on nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea, including several disputed island groups and vast undersea energy resources.

"I personally think that this speech by Mr. Hagel is full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation," Wang told senior defense officials and analysts gathered Sunday. "It was a speech to abate destabilizing factors, to create troubles and make provocations … it is the United States and Japan who are assertive in concerted efforts, not China."

Wang accused Hagel and Abe of coordinating their remarks and said he was surprised by their tenor. Abe, Hagel and Australian Defense Minister David Johnston used many of them same phrases in their criticism.

Such coordination would appear to be in line with the security policies President Barack Obama outlined during a speech at West Point on May 28, where he stated the U.S. would not act alone if not directly threatened, but would act multilaterally in defense of allies and principles.

"We must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action," Obama said. "We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action."

The United States' closest allies weren't the only ones to ratchet up the rhetoric against Chinese policies at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Vietnam's defense minister chastised China on Saturday for moving an oil rig into territorially disputed waters in May, a move which has resulted in an ongoing sea stand-off and a sunken Vietnamese fishing boat.

The words exchanged at the summit reflect the more confrontational regional environment now emerging, said Rory Medcalf, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, an Australia-based think tank.

"China is not going to be able to control the escalation of all incidents it provokes at sea, and it's not going to control every diplomatic encounter in a public forum," Medcalf said.

Hopefully China will adjust both as its clout grows, but it may take a mistake for that to happen, Medcalf added.

Wang's arguments Sunday sounded much like the mirror opposite of the criticisms lobbed his country's way. China has never provoked anyone, Wang said, and has instead acted minimally in the face of other nations' provocations.

Following his speech, several delegates asked Wang about the controversial "9-dash line map," which China has never fully explained, but which appears to give the country control over international waters and parts of other countries' declared exclusive economic zones.

Wang said the map reflects 2,000 years of Chinese history, and that it therefore predates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Christian Le Mière, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Wang's justification was wrong.

"You can't claim vast swaths of the sea, just because you believe you have historic rights to it and because you've sailed there for a long time," Le Miere said.  "That would be absolute chaos and anarchy in the international system. It would be a terrible idea."

Another delegate compared it to Italy claiming the Mediterranean Sea based on the holdings of the Roman Empire.

Outside of the diplomatic sphere, Wang did praise several military-to-military relationships, including his own military's ties to the U.S. military.

"Major progress" has been made in terms of communication mechanisms between the two militaries, Wang said. His remark could be a reference to a recent agreement signed in China that provides common rules for U.S. and Chinese ships to abide by during unplanned encounters at sea.

However, multiple officials at the summit said that smaller incidents between China and its neighbors may be more likely than U.S.-China naval clashes to develop into flashpoints.

In the meantime, rhetoric like that seen in Singapore this past weekend is likely to increase, as smaller countries determine just how far they want to align with U.S. and Japanese interests, said Robert Ayson, professor of strategic studies at Victoria University in New Zealand.

"Despite all the talk of peace, despite all the talk of mutual interest and avoiding conflict, there's a lot of that sort of pre-war bargaining going on, and hopefully, it will stay pre-war," Ayson said.

Slavin.erik@stripes.com

Twitter:@eslavin_stripes
 

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