Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's keynote speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last night did not quite match the pre-event speculation that he would pitch Japan as a 'counter-balance' to China. But the temperature rose significantly here this morning with a speech from US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (no transcript online yet but here's a Penatagon summary; UPDATE: here's the transcript) which contained some blunt criticism of China's behaviour in the South China Sea, followed by some aggressive questioning from the Chinese delegation.

Hagel called the South China Sea the 'beating heart' of the Asia Pacific before describing China's behaviour there as 'destabilising and unilateral'. He said America would uphold the principles of international law and not look the other way. America keeps its word, Hagel said later, before listing the various ways the US is enhancing its alliances with Japan, Korea and Australia and developing ties with Vietnam. Cuts in US defence spending would not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific theatre, Hagel said.

Altogether it was the sort of robust reinforcement of America's Asia Pacific pivot that was missing from President Obama's West Point speech earlier this week. But it will also reinforce fears that the US has no intention of sharing power with China in the Asia Pacific. The Asia Pacific security order depends on the US military presence, said Hagel, in what sounded very much like a reinforcement of American intent to maintain military primacy in the region.

Maybe I'm searching too hard for a China subtext in Hagel's remarks, but here are some other things he said which struck me as being directed at Beijing, some of which will reinforce its fears of containment:

  • Hagel endorsed Japan's reorientation towards playing a greater role in regional security. He later questioned whether Japan's constitution was still relevant to the threats of today, and said Abe was right to question this.
  • He described India as a country 'with historic influence across Asia' before endorsing its growing military capabilities.
  • He said democracies are more likely to remain at peace with their neighbours.
  • He endorsed what he described as the Obama-Xi formula of a 'new model of relations' for the US and China. Note that when the Chinese use this phrase, it contains two extra words: 'a new model of great power relations'. It's a significant omission, which hints at America's reluctance to grant China equal status with the US.

As for that question from the floor, it came from a PLA General who spoke over the chair, John Chipman, when he tried to wind up her rather long query. Her tone was sharp as she asked about the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and whether China's declaration of an air defence zone was any different to similar arrangements the US and other countries had made. What law did China violate?

Hagel's answers to other questions were rather rambling, but he handled this one with ease, pointing out that China's air defence zone announcement had come without any consultation. He also repeated the American position that any dispute over territory should be settled peacefully, and that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands were administered by Japan.