The US and China traded tough words over Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance on maritime claims during a visit to Beijing by US defence secretary Chuck Hagel.
Speaking to the top brass of China’s Peoples Liberation Arm on Tuesday, Mr Hagel reiterated US objections to China’s self-declared air defence identification zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea which Beijing put in place in November last year.
The zone, which requires foreign aircraft flying over it to declare themselves, is not a territorial claim per se, but clearly intended to buttress China’s claim to the Senkaku islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese.
An ADIZ has no basis in international law but many countries, including the US and UK, have established them for security reasons.
“Every nation has a right to establish an air defence zone, but not a right to do it unilaterally with no collaboration, no consultation,” Mr Hagel said. “That adds to tensions, misunderstandings and could eventually add to, and eventually get to, dangerous conflict.”
While the position did not deviate from previously stated US objections, China nonetheless bristled at these and other comments made by Mr Hagel before his arrival.
‘’The Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks,’’ Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, told Mr Hagel during their meeting in Beijing, the state-run news agency Xinhua said, referring to statements the US defence secretary had made in Tokyo on Sunday.
While in Japan, Mr Hagel had called on China to be more transparent, to use its ‘’great power’’ responsibly and to pay heed to neighbouring countries’ concerns about its increasingly assertive territorial claims.
‘’Coercion, intimidation is a very deadly thing that leads only to conflict,’’ Mr Hagel said at a press conference with his Japanese counterpart.
‘’All nations, all people, deserve respect no matter how large or how small,’’ Mr Hagel said. ‘’I think we’re seeing clear evidence of a lack of respect, along with intimidation and coercion in Europe today in what the Russians have done in Ukraine.’’
The US has asked China to clarify the so-called “nine dash line”, a demarcation on Chinese maps that Beijing uses to justify its claim to most of the South China Sea. As in the East China Sea, China’s territorial claims overlap with those of other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
The state visit by Mr Hagel had a distinctly maritime theme, and featured the first visit by a US official to China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which lasted two hours, and was described by Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, as “a harbinger of other opportunities to improve our military-to-military dialogue and transparency”.