Hagel is expected to meet with the People’s Liberation Army’s deputy chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, on the sidelines of a major Southeast Asia security conference in Singapore.
Most countries participate in the annual Shangri-la Dialogue at a ministerial level, but China has not sent its defense minister in recent years, in itself seen as a sign of displeasure with the U.S. “pivot” or “rebalance” towards a region it considers its backyard.
Long-simmering tensions between China and U.S. allies and partners in the South and East China Seas have risen in recent weeks. On Saturday, Chinese fighter jets challenged Japanese warplanes near contested islands, and two days later a Vietnamese fishing boat sank after a collision with a Chinese ship in waters disputed between the two.
The China-Vietnam spat has become especially serious since China on May 1 sent an oil rig to disputed waters near the Paracel islands. After Chinese and Vietnamese vessels collided, anti-China riots erupted in Vietnam, costing the lives of at least 25 people and prompting Beijing to evacuate thousands of citizens from Vietnam.
Hagel told reporters accompanying on a military flight to Singapore via Alaska that he planned to discuss the China-Vietnam tensions in “specific terms.”
While there were areas where the U.S. and China cooperated, he said, he would bring up “areas where we think China is overplaying its hand and presenting new challenges and new tensions.”
The U.S. says it is neutral on the specific territorial disputes in Asia, but stresses the importance of freedom of navigation in the region’s waterways. It has also reaffirmed its mutual defense treaty commitments with respect both to Japan and the Philippines – which is embroiled in its own dispute with China over a resource-rich area of the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal.
Portraying the U.S. as an interfering outsider, China has accused it of destabilizing the region.
“The East China Sea and the South China Sea had been generally peaceful and stable,” Chinese defense ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng told a press briefing Thursday. “But since the United States began to pursue its pivot to Asia strategy, some countries have taken advantage of this and kept making new troubles on territorial issues.”
Geng said the U.S. was advised “not to send wrong signals and not to embolden some countries to take risky and provocative actions.”
“The U.S. strategy of ‘re-balancing’ the Asia-Pacific region has caused only chaos and instability,” the Chinese Communist Party organ, People’s Daily, said in an editorial.
It said that after leading the world since the end of World War II, America’s “international prestige has declined since the start of the new century due to both its domestic and external policies. Some emerging countries are progressing faster than the U.S., and China is a good example, a fact that the U.S. is finding difficult to accept.”
The other major current irritant in relations relates to allegations of cyber-spying. China responded angrily this month to U.S. indictments against five military officers accused of stealing trade secrets from American companies by hacking into their computer systems.
Beijing hit back with accusations of its own this week, saying its investigations showed that China was the primary victim of U.S. cyber-espionage, directed at its leaders and key institutions.
“There is an old saying in China that if you want others to do the right thing, do it yourself first,” Geng said Thursday. “The U.S., while conducting shameful acts itself, does not have any right to point the finger against others on cyber issues.”
Hagel said the despite the bilateral disputes, the U.S. and China sought to enhance their military-to-military relations, to give the region assurances that the two “have some ability to communicate when tensions rise, we have mechanisms, bridges, to deal with those before they get beyond our ability to deal with them.”
After the Shangri-la Dialogue, which chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey is also attending, Hagel heads to Brussels for a NATO defense ministerial. He is then scheduled to visit Romania before joining President Obama in Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings during World War II.