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China actions 'destabilizing' for South China Sea: Hagel

SINGAPORE -- U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned China Saturday against “destabilizing actions” in the South China Sea, and backed Japan's plans to take on a more muscular military role as a counterweight to Beijing.

Stressing U.S. commitments to allies and friends in Asia, Hagel called for a peaceful resolution of maritime disputes and issued a blunt message to China, which was represented by a high-level military delegation at a security forum in Singapore.

“In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Hagel told the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.

He accused China of restricting the Philippines' access to Scarborough Shoal, putting pressure on Manila's long-standing presence in Second Thomas Shoal, beginning land reclamation at various locations and moving an oil rig into disputed waters with Vietnam.

Hagel said that while the United States does not take sides on rival claims, “we firmly oppose any nation's use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims.”

“The United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged,” he said.

China reacted angrily to Hagel's comments, with Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Wang Guanzhong describing them as baseless.

“This speech is full of hegemony, full of incitement, threats, intimidation,” Wang was quoted as saying by a reporter from state broadcaster China Central Television.

The lieutenant general is due to make his own speech on Sunday.

Veteran diplomat Fu Ying, head of the foreign affairs committee in China's rubber-stamp parliament, did not refer to Hagel by name but said countries should “not keep resorting to the 20th century mentality which is about war and conflict.”

She added that “in the 21st century, we don't have a world state and no country can claim that they own the law, they own the management of the sea.

“All countries have to work together based on mutual respect,” she said.

Last year, China declared an air defense identification zone in the East Sea, including over the outcrops, which are under Japan's administration.

In his speech, Hagel reiterated that the United States opposes “any effort by any nation to restrict overflight or freedom of navigation, whether from military or civilian vessels, from countries big or small”.

Despite tough words for China's behavior in disputed Asian waters, Hagel also cited efforts to forge a “new model of relations” between Beijing and Washington, including military cooperation and multinational exercises.

“The United States is reaching out to China — because we seek to expand prosperity and security for all nations of the region,” he said.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, right, and Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera shake hands prior to the start of their group meeting in Singapore on Saturday, May 31. (AP)

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