US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, and Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan, left, review a guard of honor during an April 8 welcome ceremony prior to their meeting at the Chinese Defense Ministry headquarters in Beijing. (Alex Wong / AFP)
BEIJING — Visiting US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chinese military chiefs traded warnings and rebukes Tuesday as they clashed over Beijing’s territorial disputes with its neighbors, North Korea’s missile program and cyber espionage.
Both sides were clearly at odds over a litany of issues, despite Hagel and his counterpart Gen. Chang Wanquan calling for more dialogue between the world’s strongest and largest militaries, with the American coming under hostile questioning from a roomful of People’s Liberation Army officers.
One member of the audience told Hagel the United States feared China’s rise and was sowing trouble among its Pacific neighbors to “hamper” Beijing because one day “China will be too big a challenge for the United States to cope with.”
The Pentagon chief denied the US was trying to hold China back but the tough questioning contrasted with the deferential reception given to his predecessor Leon Panetta at a similar event two years ago.
Hagel faced a blunt reprimand in an earlier meeting with a senior officer, Gen. Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, according to an account from the official state news agency Xinhua.
Referring to critical comments by Hagel earlier in his Asia trip, Fan said the “Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks.”
Hagel’s press secretary acknowledged the two “shared a very frank exchange of views.”
In his speech at the PLA National Defence University, Hagel confronted several disagreements head on, scolding China for its support of North Korea while warning against “coercion” in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
Amid rising tensions between China and Japan as well as the Philippines, Hagel emphasized Washington’s military alliance with Japan and other Asian partners, saying: “Our commitment to allies in the region is unwavering.”
China and Japan are embroiled in a bitter row over disputed islands administered by Tokyo in the East China Sea, raising concerns of a potential armed clash between the Asian powers.
And in the South China Sea, the Philippines is at odds with China over a disputed reef, where Beijing recently tried to block a boat ferrying supplies to Filipino troops in the area. China also has disputes with Vietnam and others in the area.
China’s defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, blamed America’s allies — Japan and the Philippines — for the tensions, suggesting Washington needed to restrain its partners.
Beijing hoped the United States would keep Tokyo “within bounds and not be permissive” Chang told a joint press conference in the Chinese capital.
“China has indisputable sovereignty” over the islands in dispute with Japan, Chang said, calling territorial sovereignty a “core issue” on which “we will make no compromise.”
But he suggested China would not take pre-emptive action: “We will not take the initiative to stir up troubles.”
Last November Beijing unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, including the disputed islands, prompting condemnation by Washington.
Beijing requires aircraft flying through its ADIZ to identify themselves and maintain communication with Chinese authorities, but the zone is not a claim of sovereignty.
Hagel said countries have a right to ADIZs but said setting them up without consulting other governments was risky as it could lead to “misunderstandings” and “eventually get to a dangerous conflict.”
Hagel also called on China to play a more constructive role on North Korea, saying Beijing risked damaging its image in the world by failing to rein in the regime, which has recently test-fired medium range missiles.
“Continuing to support a regime that engages in these provocative and dangerous actions, and oppresses its people, will only hurt China’s international standing,” he said.
The discord on Tuesday came after an initially positive tone on Monday, when Chinese naval officers gave Hagel a tour of the country’s new aircraft carrier at a base in Qingdao, a rare move for the normally secretive PLA.
Hagel thanked the Chinese for the ship tour and called it a promising step, but another sore point emerged Tuesday as Hagel prodded Beijing to pursue a more open dialogue on cyber espionage.
Hagel said the Pentagon had “for the first time ever” recently shared its cyber warfare doctrine with Chinese government officials.
“We have urged China to do the same.”
The United States has made no secret of its “concerns about Chinese use of networks to perpetrate commercial espionage and intellectual property theft,” Hagel said.
The United States, which is investing heavily in a new cyber warfare command of its own, suspects PLA units are behind an increasing number of digital attacks on government and US corporate networks.
But China accuses the US of hypocrisy, pointing to revelations of far-reaching electronic espionage by the US National Security Agency, including media reports the spy service hacked into telecoms giant Huawei’s network.