World News

China on Wrong Path, Warns U.S. Commander

Beijing's Approach to Regional Disputes Is 'Not Productive,' Says Adm. Samuel Locklear

By Trefor Moss And Julian Barnes

Updated May 31, 2014 8:12 a.m. ET

China's approach to regional disputes is 'not productive,' according to Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command. Zuma Press

SINGAPORE China needs to change its approach to regional disputes, especially as territorial confrontations are only likely to become more frequent in hotly contested Asia Pacific, a senior U.S. military commander warned.

While agreeing that Asia needs Chinese leadership, Adm. Samuel Locklear, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told The Wall Street Journal that Chinese leaders "will have to make a decision on how they will help the region, and help lead the region through these issues," rather than posing challenges to regional stability.

"The path they're on dealing with [territorial disputes] now is not productive for the region," said Adm. Locklear, speaking on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security summit in Singapore, on Saturday.

China needs to become a "net provider of security, not a net user of security," he continued, and help set the region "down a path of compromise" underpinned by "a fair legal framework."

Earlier Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused China of "destabilizing, unilateral actions" in the South China Sea, and of undermining the rule of law. China has come under increasing criticism from countries across Asia since deploying an oil-drilling platform in waters claimed by Hanoi in recent weeks and taking other steps to assert its territorial claims. China says its actions are normal activities in areas it considers its own territory.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said Friday, "We will never stir up trouble, but will react in the necessary way to the provocations of countries involved."

Speaking with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, according to the government-run Xinhua news agency, Mr. Xi said the South China Sea is "stable in general but signs deserving our attention have also emerged," though he said China opposes internationalizing regional issues.

Adm. Locklear insisted that the U.S. is endeavoring to encourage China to assume responsible leadership of the region through the Obama administration's "pivot" policy of sending more military, diplomatic and economic assets to Asia, and that it is in no way seeking to contain China.

"Our strategy is to bring China in as a valuable partner," he said. "I get asked all the time, Are we trying to contain China? I'm convinced that the only way we can contain China is if they choose to be contained, by their actions."

Chinese military officials attending the Shangri-La Dialogue have said they don't buy American assurances that the U.S. harbors only good intentions toward China. Following his speech, Mr. Hagel faced a combative response from Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu, who questioned whether the U.S. is really neutral—as it claims—on the region's territorial disputes.

Another Chinese major general, Zhu Chenghu, added that the "Chinese are not so stupid" as to believe that the U.S. is neutral, or that it is being genuine when it says it wants to work with China as an equal partner. The U.S. treats China as an enemy, not as a partner, Gen. Zhu said.

Despite vocal Chinese concerns about U.S. activities in the region, Adm. Locklear expressed confidence that among Asian countries there is "a growing consensus" that disputes must be resolved through peaceful dialogue.

He insisted that the U.S. retain the capability to deal with the threat posed by North Korea and other regional challenges. But at the same time Adm. Locklear said it would be a mistake to interpret the U.S. pivot strategy as meaning that the U.S. would "become the policeman for the region on every issue."

The U.S. would remain central to Asia's security framework, he said, but in an age of "collective networks" wouldn't seek to do everything itself. That has already meant deepening alliances with Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, and it would also mean encouraging China to adopt a more rules-based approach, he explained.

If China does that, "there is an opportunity for them to lead others in the region."

—James Areddy in Shanghai contributed to this article.

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