Better Sino-US ties needed given rising risk of military clash, Chuck Hagel says

US defence chief warns communications must improve given growing risk of conflict as both Chinese and US forces in Asia Pacific expand

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 6:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 7:55am

US defence chief Chuck Hagel warned that communication was needed more than ever amid the heightened risk of a clash between China and the United States as the world's two largest militaries seek to bolster their presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Hagel told officers and students at China's National Defence University that the US "pivot to Asia" and the People's Liberation Army's modernisation would draw the two sides into "closer proximity", increasing "risks of an incident, an accident or a miscalculation" unless they step up communication.

"The Asia-Pacific region is the most militarised in the world and any one of these challenges could lead to a conflict, a deadly conflict," Hagel said.

"The cost of conflict will rise as economic interdependence grows."

He called on the two militaries to establish a new relationship that stressed co-operation and dialogue.

"It seeks to manage competition, but avoid the traps of rivalry," he said. "We must do our part to build greater trust, confidence and co-operation between our two militaries."

Hagel cited the role of communication during the "near- catastrophe" at sea when the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens almost collided with a Chinese navy ship attached to vessels escorting the aircraft carrier Liaoning in December.

Hagel said the two vessels were only 42 metres apart and Cowpens was forced to take evasive action. Liaoning's captain, Zhang Zheng, who had visited the US, was apparently able to smooth things over via radio communication because he was familiar with US navy operating procedures.

Hagel also talked about a friendly encounter in October between the USS Curtis Wilbur and the PLA frigate Putian, whose captains chatted about American songs such as Hotel California and basketball while they sailed about 12 nautical miles from each other.

Watch: US defence chief holds talks with Chinese counterpart

Hagel and Defence Minister Chang Wanquan had earlier squared off on a range of thorny issues at a joint news briefing after their meeting at PLA headquarters.

During Hagel and Chang's closed-door meeting, they discussed issues including US arms sales to Taiwan and cybersecurity, but mainly focused on Washington's growing military presence in Asia, which worries Beijing amid its disputes with neighbours over islands in the East and South China Seas.

Hagel, who is in China on a three-day visit, suggested the US would not meddle in territorial disputes in the region and was not out to contain China.

But he reminded Beijing that Washington had security treaties with Japan and the Philippines that required it to provide backup in case of conflict.