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The timing was part of the message: The day after China brought US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on board its first aircraft carrier as the first foreign visitor, its defense minister warned that no one, not even the United States, could contain its military ambitions.
“With the latest developments in China, it can never be contained,” Gen. Chang Wanquan said, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The US is “a country of worldwide influence, and the Pacific Ocean is huge enough to hold both China and the US for common development and also huge enough to hold the other Asia-Pacific countries.”
Mr. Hagel hopes to create a framework to "manage competition" between the US and China, and to reassure other countries in the region who fear being trampled by China – and might take action to send a message to Beijing.
The US-China relationship has been strained by cyberattacks and territorial disputes with US allies in the South and East China seas. But with the US taking steps to maintain its influence in the region – the so-called "pivot to Asia" – increased communication and cooperation will be key.
The joint press conference between Gen. Chang and Hagel was tense, The Wall Street Journal reports:
Gen. Chang castigated Japan for stirring up trouble in the East China Sea and accused the Philippines of illegally occupying islands in the South China Sea. He blasted U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and urged America to take a more measured approach to regional disputes.
In turn, Mr. Hagel criticized China for unilaterally establishing an air-defense zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea without conferring with its competitors in the region.
"That adds to tensions, misunderstandings and could eventually add to and eventually get to a dangerous conflict," said Mr. Hagel, who wagged his finger as he emphasized his concerns.
Both Japan and the Philippines are US allies. Hagel visited Japan before heading to China, where he sought to reassure Japan that the US would continue to stand by it, The New York Times reports.
“I will be talking with the Chinese about its respect for their neighbors,” he said, as he chided China and urged the country to use its “great power” in a responsible way. “You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and the sovereignty of nations by force, coercion or intimidation, whether it’s in small islands in the Pacific or in large nations in Europe,” he said.
Last year, China set off an international uproar when it announced the creation of an "air defense identification zone" and said it would require all aircraft entering the zone to identify themselves. The zone includes the airspace over the disputed East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diayu in China.
In support of Japan, which rejected the creation of the zone, the US has been flying planes through unannounced ever since.
China has also opted to exclude Japan from the international fleet review at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, which brings together all the countries that border the Pacific. As participating countries parade their most impressive ships and military hardware, Japan will be nowhere to be seen – and neither will the US.
In a show of support, the Pentagon said that the US will attend the symposium, but will not participate in the review unless Japan can, The New York Times reports. “It is so totally high school,” a senior American defense official said, referring to Japan's exclusion. “We were, like, ‘Really? You’re going to do that?’ ”
China has consistently cast Japan as the provocateur, implying that China's actions are responses to moves by Tokyo.
“Japan is making provocative comments on China, and China is exercising restraint to the maximum,” Chang said, according to Bloomberg. “If you conclude China is going to resort to force against Japan that’s wrong. On the Chinese side we’ll not take initiatives to stir up troubles but we aren’t afraid of any provocation.”
In a commentary, Chinese news agency Xinhua praised Hagel's statement that the US "pivot to Asia" was not veiling a "contain China" strategy, but said the US had not been acting in friendship lately.
As the new defense secretary, Hagel has to be informed of some basic facts.
The establishment of ADIZ is a normal move, which conforms to the UN Charter and is aimed to ensure stability, while the escalating tension, in the first place, was ignited by Tokyo's illegal "nationalization" of China's Diaoyu Islands in 2012.
Since then, the nationalist government led by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched a political campaign -- peaked by his visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine -- to challenge China's bottom line.
In fact, the growing assertiveness of Japan could be partly attributed to the United States. Irresponsible remarks by some U.S. politicians have emboldened the rightist forces in Tokyo.
In this regard, Hagel's stay in China is expected to offer a rare opportunity for the United States to clarify its "pivot to Asia" policy and assure its China friend of its intention, so as to strengthen mutual trust and understanding across the Pacific.
Indeed, Hagel underscored the US desire to continue to foster better Chinese-US relations, Time reports.
Despite the surfacing of adversarial statements between the two parties at times, the defense bosses also confirmed that cooperation between Beijing and Washington was vital.
“The China-U.S. relationship is essential to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century,” said Hagel.