(AP) – A Chinese military leader on Saturday pointedly questioned the expanded U.S. role in the Pacific after the Pentagon chief said he hoped for better military ties between the two powers.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a speech at a security conference in Singapore, also warned China about cyberattacks seemingly linked to Beijing.
He said the U.S. has expressed its concerns about “the growing threat of cyberintrusions, some of which appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military.”
Other U.S. officials have publicly blamed China for computer-based attacks that steal data from the U.S. government and corporations, but Hagel’s rebuke came in China’s backyard and in front of a Chinese delegation.
Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu, director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science, challenged Hagel to better explain America’s intentions for its military buildup across the region.
“Thank you for mentioning China several times,” she said in the question-and-answer session after Hagel’s speech.
She said the Obama administration’s new focus on the Pacific has been widely interpreted as an “attempt to counter China’s rising influence and to offset the increasing military capabilities of the Chinese PLA. However, China is not convinced.”
She asked Hagel how he can assure China that the increased U.S. deployments to the region are part of an effort to build a more positive relationship with Beijing.
“That’s really the whole point behind closer military-to-military relationships,” Hagel responded. “We don’t want miscalculations and misunderstandings and misinterpretations. And the only way you do that is you talk to each other.”
The U.S. welcomes a strong and emerging China that takes on responsibilities for security in the region, Hagel said, adding that the countries have to be inclusive and direct with each other. “I think we’ve made continued progress,” he said. “And we’ll make more progress.”
These matters, and the overall U.S.-China relationship, will be on the agenda for President Barack Obama’s meeting next week in California with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It will be their first meeting since Obama’s re-election and Xi’s promotion to Communist Party chief.
U.S. defense officials said Hagel also broadly raised the issue of cybersecurity in a brief and informal meeting with Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo, PLA deputy chief, on Friday evening.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to publicly discuss the content of the meeting, said Hagel mentioned plans for the formation of a cyberworking group.
In his speech, Hagel said the U.S. is determined to work closely with China and others to establish appropriate standards for behavior in cyberspace.
The U.S. also is looking to China for help in resolving problems with North Korea, which has raised tensions with a series of rocket launches, an underground nuclear test and threats of nuclear strikes against the U.S. and its allies.
Hagel spoke of the need for “a continuous and respectful dialogue” and said the U.S. and China must build trust in order to avoid military miscalculations.
Much of the speech, however, was designed as a follow-up to last year’s gathering, when then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta first detailed what has been called the U.S. military’s new pivot to the Pacific.
Hagel assured Asian nations that despite sharp budget cuts, the Pentagon will continue to shift troops, ships and aircraft to the Pacific region.
Where Panetta had laid out promises, Hagel was able to point to results. U.S. Marines have been sent to Darwin, Australia, while a U.S. combat ship has arrived in Singapore and plans are unfolding for U.S. Army units to rotate in and out of the region.
Hagel suggested that the Pentagon’s five-year budget plan continues to anticipate additional F-22 Raptor fighter jets and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in the region, along with a fourth fast-attack submarine deployed to Guam.
He provided a glimpse into the broad review he ordered to determine whether budget cuts will force the U.S. military strategy to change, a year after Panetta unveiled it.
International leaders have been watching the deliberations in Washington closely to see what the roughly $487 billion in automatic spending cuts over the next 10 years will mean to America’s commitment’s abroad.
Already the military services have curtailed flight and combat training for many units, grounded some Air Force squadrons and delayed or canceled some ship deployments.
The Pentagon also has said it will furlough about 680,000 civilian employees for up to 11 days through the end of the fiscal year.
The initial report on the strategy review was due to Hagel on Friday, and while he said the outcome is not final, it should reflect the rise of Asia.
“For the region, this means I can assure you that coming out of this review, the United States will continue to implement the rebalance and prioritize our posture, activities and investments in Asia-Pacific,” he said.
The Asia-Pacific, Hagel said, is at the epicenter of historic changes around the world and the U.S. is committed to strengthening its military, economic and diplomatic partnerships with nations across the region.
As part of that he noted that the U.S. will set aside $100 million to expand its military exercises in the region.
Just finishing his third month as Pentagon Chief, Hagel used the speech to introduce himself on a more personal level to the audience. For many he is a familiar face. He was one of the founders of the conference in 2002, and as a U.S. senator, was a speaker at the first three gatherings.
He talked about his long ties to the region, including his father’s service in World War II flying B-25 bombers in the South Pacific, and his own service in Vietnam with his brother. Hagel was wounded and twice received the Purple Heart.
Later, he traveled to Asia as the co-founder of a cellular telephone company and then, as a Republican senator from Nebraska, he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“What I took away from all these experiences,” Hagel said, “was a firm belief that the arc of the 21st century would be shaped by events here in Asia.”