SINGAPORE — China’s aggressive moves to claim jurisdiction over land and sky in the Asia-Pacific risk undermining peace and security in the region and beyond, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Saturday. Beijing scoffed at the ‘‘groundless’’ charges.
Hagel told an international security conference that the United States ‘‘will not look the other way’’ when China and others try to restrict navigation or ignore international rules and standards.
China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are destabilizing the region, he said, adding that Beijing’s failure to resolve such disputes threatens East Asia’s long-term progress.
A Chinese general took issue with Hagel’s comments, saying that ‘‘although I do think that those criticisms are groundless, I do appreciate your candor.’’
Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the General Staff, told Hagel during a brief meeting after the defense secretary’s speech, ‘‘You were very candid this morning and, to be frank, more than our expectation.’’
Reporters were taken from the meeting room before Hagel responded. But Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said Hagel told Wang that all regional disputes should be solved through diplomacy, and Hagel encouraged China to foster dialogue with neighboring nations.
As he did in 2013, Hagel used his appearance at the Shangri-La conference to single out China for cyberspying against the United States. While this has been a persistent complaint by the United States, it was less than two weeks after the Obama administration charged five Chinese military officers with hacking into American companies to steal trade secrets.
The Chinese, in response, suspended participation in a US-China Cyber Working Group, and released a report that said the United States is conducting unscrupulous cyberespionage and that China is a major target.
Noting the suspension, Hagel said the United States will continue to raise cyberissues with the Chinese ‘‘because dialogue is essential for reducing the risk of miscalculation and escalation in cyberspace.’’
In comments aimed directly at China, Hagel said the United States opposes any country’s use of intimidation or threat of force to assert territorial claims.
‘‘All nations of the region, including China, have a choice: to unite, and recommit to a stable regional order, or, to walk away from that commitment and risk the peace and security that has benefited millions of people throughout the Asia-Pacific, and billions of people around the world,’’ he said.
China and Japan have been at odds over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by both.
The United States has declined to take sides, but has made clear it has a treaty obligation to support Japan. The United States also has refused to recognize China’s declaration of an air defense zone over a large swath of the East China Sea, including the disputed islands.
In response, Major General Yao Yunzhu of China’s People’s Liberation Army questioned whether the United States and its allies obeyed international law and consulted others when they set up air defense zones.
‘You were very candid this morning —more than our expectation.’
Yao, director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, also challenged how the United States can say it is not taking a position on the island sovereignty issue, while still saying it is committed to its treaty obligation to support Japan.
Hagel said the United States and allies consulted with its neighbors and, unlike China, did not unilaterally set up air defense zones.
While the two public exchanges with the Chinese officials were sharp, a senior US defense official described Hagel’s private meeting with Wang as fairly amicable.
The official, who was not authorized to discuss the meeting publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wang began by criticizing the speech, but also talked about increasing military cooperation with the United States and the two nations’ trade relationship.
The official said Wang indicated China was looking forward to participating in a major military exercise in the Pacific with the United States and other nations later this year.
US officials also have raised concerns about Beijing’s decision to place an oil rig in part of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam. The move has led to a series of clashes between the two nations in the waters around the rig, including the recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Chinese leaders have blamed the Obama administration’s new focus on Asia for emboldening some of the disputes.