China is locked in territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia over stretches of the resource rich region.
This month, ships from China and Vietnam clashed near the Paracel Islands and Vietnam said a Chinese ship sunk one of its boats by ramming it.
“In recent months, China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Mr Hagel said in the speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
He said the US had no position on the merits of the rival claims over the region, which is rich in oil and gas.
But he went on to say that aggression would not be ignored.
“We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims,” he said.
Candid comments surprise Chinese officials
The unusually direct comments from the US have surprised Chinese officials in Singapore.
Chuck Hagel later had a bi-lateral meeting with the deputy chief of staff of the Chinese Army, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong.
“You were very candid this morning, and to be frank, more than our expectations,” Wang said at the start of the meeting.
“Although, I do think those criticisms are groundless, I do appreciate your candour,” he said.
In Beijing, China’s state media is reporting that president Xi Jinping has also responded to the recent criticisms to his nation’s action in the South China Sea by saying China would not initiate aggressive action.
“We will never stir up trouble,” he is reported to have said.
“But we will react in the necessary way to the provocations of countries involved.”
The US is not the only nation at the summit concerned by the recent conflict.
At the forum, Australia also said any use of force or coercion to change the status quo in the South China Sea will not be accepted.
“Australia does not take a position on competing claims in the South China Sea,” the Defence Minister, Mr Johnston, said.
“But we have a legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation.
“The use of force or coercion to unilaterally alter the status quo in the East China Sea and the South China Sea is simply not acceptable.”Source: ABC – US warns China that Washington will not remain passive if the international order is threatened
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- Malaysia hardens stance against China; new naval base in South China Sea (chinadailymail.com)
- Chinese warships aim uncovered guns at Vietnamese ships in South China Sea (chinadailymail.com)
- Japan to establish military bases near disputed islands in response to China aggression (chinadailymail.com)
- A useless ASEAN will lead to the Chinafication of the entire Southeast Asia (chinadailymail.com)
- US warns China against aggression as allies seek more cooperation – Reuters (reuters.com)
- U.S. warns China against aggression as allies seek more cooperation (trust.org)
- US warns that Beijing is ‘destabilising’ South China Sea (irishtimes.com)
- China is ‘destabilising’ South China Sea, US defence secretary warns (theguardian.com)
- U.S. backs Abe, tells China to stop its destabilizing actions (japantimes.co.jp)