U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during the first plenary session… (Edgar Su/REUTERS )
SINGAPORE — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took China to task Saturday for alleged cyberespionage, drawing a sharp response from a Chinese general who questioned whether the United States’ growing military presence in Asia is anything more than a challenge to Beijing’s rise.
Delivering the keynote speech at the annual security summit here known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, Hagel said the United States is “clear-eyed about the challenges in cyber” and echoed past assertions by the Obama administration that multiplying cyberattacks on U.S. government and industry portals “appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military.”
It was the latest public charge by the administration, which has concluded that calling out China publicly could curb what U.S. officials call a brazen and sophisticated quest for American secrets stored online.
The Obama administration has repeatedly sought to engage China in a dialogue on the issue. In a visit to China in April, Secretary of State John F. Kerry won agreement from Beijing to set up working group discussions on cyber issues.
“We are determined to work more vigorously with China and other partners to establish international norms of responsible behavior in cyberspace,” Hagel said in his remarks Saturday delivered in a conference hall packed with Asian military officials.
China has denied Washington’s accusations, most pointedly last week, when it said it did not need to steal U.S. military-hardware blueprints because it was more than capable of producing its own.
After Hagel’s speech, a Chinese general took to the microphone. In unusually pointed remarks, Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu, director of China-America defense relations at the Chinese military’s Academy of Military Science, started with a wry remark.
“Thank you for mentioning China several times,” she said to Hagel, drawing laughter and muttering. U.S. officials have long said their growing footprint in the Asia-Pacific region is not meant to offset China’s military might, Yao said, but noted that “China is not convinced.”
Hagel said the United States is hoping to build a more constructive relationship with China by fostering closer ties between their militaries.
“The only way you can do that is you talk to each other,” Hagel said. “You have to be direct with each other.”
Hagel’s lengthy speech was meant to reassure allies in the region that steep defense cuts and security challenges in the Middle East and North Africa have not derailed an initiative to shift the U.S. military’s attention toward Asia as it wraps up a period of messy, unpopular wars.
China’s ascendance in maritime affairs, space and cyberspace has alarmed many in the region in recent years, said Patrick M. Cronin, an Asia-Pacific expert at the Center for a New American Security.
“The 2008 global financial crisis and overcommitment of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan served to accelerate the perception of China as the next superpower and the decline of America,” he said. “The gradual global awakening to China’s cyberespionage heightened doubts about America’s power, a foundation on which regional security has rested since the end of World War II.”
America’s fiscal crunch will not derail its policy goals, Hagel said.
“It is true that the Department of Defense will have fewer resources than in the past,” he said. “It would be unwise and shortsighted to conclude, however, that our commitment to the rebalance cannot be sustained.”
U.S. military spending will continue to represent roughly 40 percent of worldwide defense expenditures “even under the most extreme budget scenarios,” he added.
By 2020, Hagel said, the United States intends to base 60 percent of its naval assets in the Pacific. The Air Force, meanwhile, has stationed 60 percent of its overseas troops in the Asia-Pacific region.
The United States is working to expand its partnerships with Washington’s closest allies in the region: Japan, South Korea and Australia, Hagel said. The U.S. defense establishment continues to produce “cutting-edge” technology from which allies can benefit, he said.
Hagel also warned attendees about conducting “business as usual” with North Korea, a pariah state that counts China as its main ally in the region.
“The United States will not stand by while North Korea seeks to develop a nuclear-armed missile that can target the United States,” he said.
Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.