SINGAPORE -- China accused Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of using threatening and unexpected language in a speech earlier Saturday in which he criticized Chinese aggression in maritime disputes with its Asian neighbors.
Mr. Hagel's remarks to an Asian security conference were "excessive beyond ... imagination" and "suffused with hegemonism ... threats and intimidation," Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of staff of the Chinese military, said in remarks reported in the Chinese media.
At the start of a brief meeting with Mr. Hagel, Gen. Wang also referenced the secretary's speech, saying Mr. Hagel's criticisms were "groundless."
U.S. defense officials said Mr. Hagel had purposefully used strong language in the speech to criticize what he called China's "destabilizing, unilateral actions" in pressing its control of air and sea lanes in the region. Most recently, China has overflown islands under Japanese administration in the East China Sea. Vietnam has also vigorously protested a Chinese claim to energy resources in the South China Sea.
"We take no position on competing territorial claims," Mr. Hagel said in his speech. "But we firmly oppose any nation's use of intimidation, coercion or the threat of force to assert these claims."
A senior U.S. official said Mr. Hagel's meeting with Gen. Wang, who leads China's delegation at the Shangri-La Dialogue, was truncated because of scheduling concerns and lasted only about 20 minutes. While Gen. Wang was initially critical, the bulk of the discussion was "cooperative and amicable" and focused on improving U.S.-Chinese military-to-military cooperation. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door session.
The United States has called for China to settle its disputes in the area under international law.
While the United States has tried to straddle a line between criticizing Chinese aggression in the region and improving its own relations with Beijing, neighboring countries looking to the Obama administration for support in the disputes said they were encouraged by Mr. Hagel's blunt public language.
"The feedback was very positive," the defense official said, particularly on the subject of maritime disputes.
Although the United States has emphasized to China that it takes no side in the maritime disputes, Mr. Hagel noted in remarks in Singapore that it has defense treaties with several Asian nations. In private meetings on the margins of the conference, several U.S. partners have questioned how far the Obama administration would go in using force to implement those treaties if it became necessary and referred to President Barack Obama's decision to use force in Syria, a decision that was later rescinded.
Mr. Hagel also met with Vietnam's defense minister, Gen. Phung Quang Thanh, and in a trilateral meeting with Japan and South Korea, he pressed for more cooperation on a jointly operated missile-defense program against North Korea, officials said.