The Chinese Defense Ministry issued a statement this week thanking outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel for his service and his contributions towards strengthening relations between China and the United States. The statement is particularly notable because of rumors of Hagel’s ouster after clashes with key Obama administration members.
In a statement released by state news outlet Xinhua, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Defense responded to questions about Hagel at a press briefing by stating, “China appreciates Mr. Hagel’s efforts during his term on China-U.S. defense and military ties.” While the statement itself appears lukewarm, Xinhua described it as “praise,” and the outlet often paraphrases rather than quotes from official statements given orally.
Spokesman Geng Yansheng added that, under Hagel, “The two defense ministries had worked to implement the consensus reached by the presidents of China and the United States to build a new type of China-U.S. military ties.”
The praise is particularly surprising given Hagel’s tussles with China, especially regarding China’s belligerence against its neighbors in the East and South China Seas. In a speech in Singapore in May, Hagel accused China of having “undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” to which a representative of the Chinese government told Hagel, “I do appreciate your candor.”
Despite the tensions, Hagel had moments of harmony with the Chinese government, as well. He received unprecedented access for a U.S. official to one of China’s most impressive military feats–a new aircraft carrier–in April, and he hosted Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan in the Pentagon in August 2013, less than a year into his tenure.
The New York Times reported this week that Hagel was resigning “under pressure” and that Obama administration officials believed the Secretary of Defense “wasn’t up for the job,” citing a number of international crises, including ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, as well as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The paper reported later in the week that, according to sources, one of the points of contention was the war in Syria, about which Hagel disagreed with National Security Adviser Susan Rice on strategic matters.
Elsewhere, in a radio interview, Senator John McCain claimed that, to his knowledge, Hagel was “very frustrated” with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and he refuted the idea that Hagel was not “up to the job.” McCain asserted the fellow Republican “was never really brought into that real tight circle inside the White House,” and his exclusion is partially to blame for the “incredible debacle that we’re in today throughout the world.”