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China has denounced U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's characterization of Beijing's territorial claims in East Asian waters.
At an international security conference in Singapore on May 31, Hagel warned that Washington "will not look the other way" when a country uses intimidation to sidestep United Nations rules on territorial waters and international navigation rights.
"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," the defense secretary told the Shangri-La Dialogue.
On May 1, China set up a floating oil rig close to the Vietnamese coast to explore for oil and gas believed to be in abundance beneath the floor of the South China Sea. Hanoi protested the move, and demonstrations in Vietnam against China have turned violent.
On May 26, a Vietnamese fishing boat near the rig was sunk under ambiguous circumstances, but all 10 crew were rescued. China and Vietnam blamed each other for the incident.
Shortly after Hagel's remarks, the secretary met with Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of China's General Staff. Reporters were not allowed to monitor the meeting, but Wang reportedly told the American that his criticisms were "groundless" and condemned him for speaking as he did before their military colleagues.
China Central Television quoted Wang as turning around the accusation of intimidation and pinning it on Hagel. "This speech is full of hegemony, full of incitement, threats, intimidation," the broadcast said.
The meeting was closed to the public before Hagel made his response, but a U.S. spokesman said the secretary advised Wang to resolve such disputes through diplomacy and dialogue with its neighbors.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, arguing that the region has been its territorial waters for decades, and it claims waters that are close to the Vietnamese coast. Vietnamese territorial waters extend 200 miles from its coast under the terms of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Chinese and Vietnamese zones overlap, which is where the Chinese rig was positioned.
Hagel was not the only one at the Shangri-La Dialogue criticizing Beijing's claims of territorial waters. On May 30, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the conference that his country intends to take a greater security role in Southeast Asian waters.
Abe said his government supports efforts by countries in the region to protect their territorial rights, and would send coast guard patrol boats to protect Vietnam and the Philippines. Besides these two countries, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan say China is encroaching on their territorial waters.
Responding to Abe's remarks, Wang was equally critical of Japan as he was of the United States, and shrugged off Tokyo's offer for bilateral negotiations on East Asian issues.
"[Such talks] will hinge on whether the Japanese side is willing to amend the erroneous policy toward China and improve relations between China and Japan," Wang said. "Japan should correct its mistakes as soon as possible to improve China-Japan ties."
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