Singapore: The United States threw its weight on Saturday behind a push by Japan to take a more active role in regional security and bluntly warned China to halt destabilising actions in support of territorial claims.
Using unusually strong language, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told an Asia-Pacific security forum that the United States was committed to its geopolitical rebalance to the region and "will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged".
"In recent months, China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea," he said in the speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
Hagel said the United States took no position on the merits of rival territorial claims in the region, but added: "We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims."
On Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the same forum that Tokyo would offer its "utmost support" to Southeast Asian countries in their efforts to protect their seas and airspace, as he pitched his plan for Japan to take on a bigger international security role.
In a pointed dig at China, he said Japan would provide coast guard patrol boats to the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which have complained of Beijing`s aggression in disputed areas of the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.
Abe also explained his controversial push to ease restrictions of the post-war, pacifist constitution that has kept Japan`s military from fighting overseas since World War Two.
"Japan intends to play an even greater and more proactive role than it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world something more certain," Abe said.
Japan has its own territorial row with China over islands in the sea between them.
China has said Abe`s government is using the islands dispute as an excuse to revive its military.
"He has made it into a bigger issue - that is China as a country is posing a threat to Japan as a country," Fu Ying, Beijing`s chief delegate to the forum, said on Friday.
"He has made such a myth. And then with that as an excuse, (he is) trying to amend the security policy of Japan, that is what is worrying for the region and for China."
Despite memories of Japan`s harsh wartime occupation of much of Southeast Asia, several countries in the region may view Abe`s message favourably because of China`s increasing assertiveness.
The United States, having to implement cuts to its vast military budget at a time of austerity, is keen to see allies play a greater role in security and Hagel gave an enthusiastic U.S. endorsement to Abe`s speech.
"We ... support Japan’s new effort ... to reorient its Collective Self Defense posture toward actively helping build a peaceful and resilient regional order," Hagel said.
He also welcomed India`s increasingly active role in Asian institutions and growing defense capabilities. He said the United States looked forward to working with new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and that he himself hoped to visit India later in the year.
Hagel said Asia-Pacific nations must cooperate in security in order to build a peaceful and prosperous future.
"We must continue to develop, share and maintain advanced military capabilities that can adapt to rapidly evolving challenges," he said.
Hagel repeatedly stressed Obama`s commitment to the Asia-Pacific rebalance and said the strong US military presence in the region would endure.
He said Washington would seek to uphold international rules and laws and stand up to aggression by helping to boost the security capabilities of allies and strengthening its own defence.
"To ensure that the rebalance is fully implemented, both President Obama and I remain committed to ensuring that any reductions in US defense spending do not come at the expense of America’s commitments in the Asia-Pacific," he said.
"Our friends and allies can judge us on nearly seven decades of history," he said. "As history makes clear, America keeps its word."
In spite of his strong criticisms of China, Hagel said the United States was increasing military-to-military engagement with Beijing to improve communication and build understanding.
"All nations of the region, including China, have a choice: to unite and recommit to a stable regional order, or, to walk away from that commitment and risk the peace and security that has benefited millions of people throughout the Asia Pacific, and billions around the world."