By Daniel De Luce ,AFP
BEIJING — Visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chinese military chiefs traded warnings and rebukes Tuesday as they clashed over Beijing’s territorial disputes with its neighbors, North Korea’s missile program and cyber espionage.
Both sides were clearly at odds over a litany of issues, despite Hagel and his counterpart General Chang Wanquan calling for more dialogue between the world’s strongest and largest militaries, with the American coming under hostile questioning from a roomful of People’s Liberation Army officers. One member of the audience told Hagel the United States feared China’s rise and was sowing trouble among its Pacific neighbors to “hamper” Beijing because one day “China will be too big a challenge for the United States to cope with.” The Pentagon chief denied the U.S. was trying to hold China back but the tough questioning contrasted with the deferential reception given to his predecessor Leon Panetta at a similar event two years ago. Hagel faced a blunt reprimand in an earlier meeting with a senior officer, General Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, according to an account from the official state news agency Xinhua.
Referring to critical comments by Hagel earlier in his Asia trip, Fan said the “Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks.” Hagel’s press secretary acknowledged the two “shared a very frank exchange of views.”
In his speech at the PLA National Defence University, Hagel confronted several disagreements head on, scolding China for its support of North Korea while warning against “coercion” in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Amid rising tensions between China and Japan as well as the Philippines, Hagel emphasized Washington’s military alliance with Japan and other Asian partners, saying: “Our commitment to allies in the region is unwavering.”