04/10/2014 09:19 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

Circling the Battlewagons Against China: US Defense, State Dept. Speak Out

Both leading U.S. cabinet offices concerned with international security are joining in a steady drumbeat of calling China to task for its aggression just as President Obama prepares to travel to Asia.

The two often differ in tone if not substance when it comes to addressing a potential foe. The State Department traditionally relies on the more gentle language of diplomacy, the Defense Department on words of military strength.

In recent days, however, both appear to have acted in unison and sent a powerful message abroad to a China that seems bent on hegemonic control over much of Asia, threatening U.S. allies.

First, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Daniel Russel, warned China not to take a leaf from Russia's book on Crimea and pursue territorial ambitions such as taking over Taiwan. Although Russel expressed himself diplomatically in testimony to the U.S. Senate, the Chinese immediately reacted sharply.

"Why does this U.S. official ... obstinately say these things about China?" demanded an upset Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei.

Russel also left no doubt that the United States would stand by its treaty allies including the Philippines, which has been threatened by China in disputes over Philippine possessions in the South China Sea. He said China has taken "intimidating steps" by sending large numbers of ships against the Philippines instead of peacefully agreeing to arbitration in an international court, as the Philippines is seeking.

On Taiwan, Russel said that China shouldn't even think about using Russia's takeover of Crimea as a model, but warned that China "continues to carry out military deployments and exercises aimed at Taiwan."

Then came the trip to Japan and China by the Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. In Tokyo, Hagel spoke out bluntly about China with words that news accounts called "uncharacteristically sharp."

China was clearly the intent of this Hagel rebuke: "You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity of nations by force, coercion or intimidation, whether it's small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe."

To support Japan, whose Senkaku Islands are under warship pressure by China, Hagel announced that two more destroyers with ballistic capabilities will be sent to defend Japan against North Korea. While the move is designed to counter North Korea's nuclear ambitions, China sees any U.S. support for Japan as an affront.

That was apparent immediately when Hagel went on to China. His host in Beijing, the Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan, called on the United States to "restrain" pacifist Japan. Chang also denounced the small Philippines.

The U.S., Chang insisted, should keep Japan "within bounds," and shouldn't be "permissive and supportive." In the South China Sea, Chang said it was the tiny Philippines, not China, that is aggressive, although China still won't agree to peaceful arbitration.

And if Hagel didn't get the message about China's claims to the Philippine possessions and Japan's Senkaku Islands, Chang spelled it out:

We will make no compromise, no concession, not even a tiny violation is allowed. We are prepared at any time to cope with any type of threats and challenges.

The purpose of Hagel's trip to China, his first as Secretary of Defense, was in part to convince China to become more open about its military strength and conduct. Hagel was allowed to tour China's new aircraft carrier, a second-hand vessel from the Ukraine but redesigned, as a show of China's transparency. The transparency didn't extend to journalists traveling with Hagel, who were denied permission to go aboard the aircraft carrier and instead were sent to tour a brewery.

Even though Hagel made efforts to be conciliatory, he also criticized China for last year's surprise declaration of an air defense zone that includes Japan's Senkaku Islands. While nations have the right to establish zones, Hagel said, they don't have "the right to do it unilaterally." The Chinese zone was declared without any prior consultation with the U.S. or Japan, and the United States promptly flew bombers throughout the zone without China's clearance.

Both Russel's testimony for the State Department and Hagel's trip for the Pentagon appear to pave the way for President Obama's trip to Asia in late April. With his first stop in Tokyo, all eyes and ears will be on Obama to see and hear if he also speaks out on China's aggressive behavior.