TOKYO — On the eve of his first visit to China as defense secretary, Chuck Hagel paid Beijing a compliment laden with tough love.
“China is a great power,” Hagel said Sunday, speaking alongside his counterpart from Japan, the U.S. ally in the region that may have the most at stake in China’s military buildup. “And with this power comes new and wider responsibilities as to how you use that power.”
The Obama administration has sought at times to play down the extent to which its strategy to augment military and diplomatic outreach in the Asia-Pacific region is meant to counterbalance China’s military rise.
But on Sunday morning, speaking at the Japanese Defense Ministry, Hagel was uncharacteristically sharp when asked what messages he would convey to Chinese officials.
“Coercion and intimidation is a deadly thing,” Hagel said, in an apparent reference to Chinese territorial claims that have rankled neighbors, most significantly Japan. “You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion or intimidation, whether it’s small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe.”
Hagel has traveled to Asia four times since he took the helm of the Pentagon a year ago, but this trip will mark his first visit as a Cabinet member to China, a country with which United States has struggled to build a collaborative military relationship. Hagel said he intends to encourage Chinese officials to be more candid about their goals and strategies.
“The more transparent and open governments can be with each other, the better for everyone,” Hagel said.
Chinese officials have been critical of the Obama administration’s “rebalancing” strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, seeing it as an affront to their aspirations. Washington and Beijing have traded accusations of cyber-espionage as both capitals seek to dominate the increasingly fraught battleground of cyberspace.
China’s increasingly assertive behavior is only one of Washington’s worries in the region. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is another.
Seeking in part to appease wary officials in Japan, which is in North Korea’s range of fire, Hagel announced Sunday that the United States would deploy two additional ballistic missile defense destroyers to Japan by 2017. The new ships will bring to seven the number of Japan-based U.S. ships capable of interdicting ballistic missiles.
“This move to significantly bolster our naval presence is another action that strengthens our alliance and increases deterrence against North Korean aggression,” Hagel said.
The announcement comes amid a new spike in tension between North and South Korea, which last week exchanged artillery fire near their disputed maritime boundary.