BEIJING -- In a face-off between the defense chiefs of China and the United States, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told his Chinese counterpart Tuesday that his country does not have the right to unilaterally establish an air defense zone over disputed islands with no consultation.
And he said the United States will protect Japan, the Philippines and other allies locked in disputes with China, as laid out in U.S. treaty obligations.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said his country will not take the initiative to stir up troubles with Japan, but warned that Beijing is ready to use its military if needed to safeguard its territory. And he said the United States must "stay vigilant" against Japan's actions and "not be permissive and supportive" of Tokyo.
Washington has criticized Beijing's recent declaration of an air defense zone over a large swath of the East China Sea, including disputed remote islands controlled by Japan, but also claimed by China. Mr. Hagel was in Japan earlier this week, reassuring its leaders of ongoing U.S. support.
In their remarks Tuesday, Mr. Hagel and Mr. Chang largely aired their countries' well-known positions about the territorial disputes, although it was the first time that it was done in China, shoulder-to-shoulder, after nearly two hours of meetings.
"Every nation has a right to establish an air defense zone, but not a right to do it unilaterally -- with no collaboration, no consultation. That adds to tensions, misunderstandings, and could eventually ... get to dangerous conflict," said Mr. Hagel, pointing his finger toward television cameras and photographers at the back of the room.
Mr. Chang said China stands ready to resolve disputes diplomatically. But he made clear that China is always ready to respond militarily to threats. He also complained that the Philippines illegally occupies part of China's islands and reefs in the South China Sea. He told Mr. Hagel, "We will make no compromise, no concession, no trading; not even a tiny ... violation is allowed."
On a broader scale, the meeting focused on how the U.S. and China can build stronger ties, in the wake of years of frosty relations over Beijing's military buildup, persistent cyberattacks by both sides and the aggressive Chinese territorial claims.
Washington says it takes no side on the sovereignty issue of the islands but will defend Japan and the Philippines. But it also has refused to recognize the air defense zone or follow China's demands that its aircraft file flight plans with Beijing's Defense Ministry and heed Chinese instructions.
The Pentagon chief pressed China about North Korea, saying Washington and Beijing have a shared interest "in achieving a verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." North Korea has been escalating its rhetoric lately, threatening additional missile and nuclear tests and conducting a series of ballistic missile launches.
Later Tuesday, at the People's Liberation Army's National Defense University, Mr. Hagel gave a speech to about 120 colonels and other staff officers, and was more direct, challenging China to play a more constructive role in North Korea. Continuing to support the Pyongyang regime, he said, "will only hurt China's international standing" and its position in the region.
While discord between the U.S. and China was starkly evident during the day's events, there was an underlying current of slowly growing cooperation. The two countries' interests outweigh their differences, Mr. Chang said, adding, "The Pacific is huge enough to hold both China and the U.S."