Despite the Ukraine crisis and ongoing civil war in Syria, the U.S. swears that the Asia pivot is still on.
That’s the message that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is trying to project ahead of a 10-day trip to Asia that begins today with the U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum in Hawaii.
Speaking to a pool of reporters at the Pentagon on Monday, Hagel said the purpose of the trip is to “reemphasize the rebalance [and] strategic interests of our country, to reassure our allies, to, again, make very clear of our commitment to our allies in the Asia Pacific.” Just a few seconds later he reiterated: “The meeting in Hawaii and the full agenda of this trip, again, underscores the importance of this rebalance.” Hagel next emphasized that the United States has been “a Pacific Power for many years. We’ve looked forward to a continuation of building those relationships and those partnerships as we go forward.”
In what will be the fourth Asia-Pacific trip he has made during his first year as defense secretary, Hagel will meet with the defense chiefs of all ten ASEAN nations before traveling to Japan, China, and Mongolia. The defense forum in Hawaii that begins on Tuesday will be the first one that the U.S. has ever hosted. The U.S. is likely to seek to make its hosting of the forum a more institutionalized event in the years ahead. Already, it has characterized the meeting as “historic.”
Hagel invited the ASEAN defense chiefs to meet with him in Hawaii during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last June. The move reflects the security aspect of the Obama administration’s larger push to strengthen America’s ties to ASEAN as an organization. Already, the administration has created a full-time ambassador to ASEAN and improved relations with Myanmar, which is an ASEAN member and the current chair of the organization.
Hagel’s meeting in Hawaii this week also reflects America’s interest in seeing ASEAN members strengthen defense cooperation between themselves. As evidenced by NATO in Europe and its strong cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. prefers constructing its military posture on a region-wide basis. Doing this successfully requires a high degree of cooperation among the regional states themselves, something that is absent in Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular. As Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby explained it last week, Hagel is “keen to get into a broader, deeper discussion about how we can improve those [allied] capabilities as well and interoperability between partners and friends.”
Following the ASEAN Defense Forum, Hagel will travel to Japan for his second trip there as defense secretary. His meetings in Tokyo are expected to focus on the current talks about redefining the terms of the U.S.-Japan security alliance, which is likely to result in giving Tokyo a larger and more independent role in Asia.
After Japan, Hagel will fly to Beijing for his first trip to China as secretary of defense. The trip will reciprocate the one Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Chang Wanquan made to the United States back in August of last year. In Beijing, Hagel is likely to try to expand Sino-U.S. mil-to-mil ties, as this has been a long-standing goal of the Obama administration. He is also likely to talk about China’s tensions with its neighbors in the South and East China Seas, as well as North Korea’s recent belligerence.
Hagel will end his ten-day trip in Mongolia, where he will be the first U.S. Defense Secretary to visit in a decade. In discussing the purpose of this leg of the trip, Press Secretary Kirby noted that Mongolia had contributed troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and said that Mongolia has a growing interest in regional stability thanks to its rapidly growing economy. It will be interesting to see if Hagel brings up Russia while in Mongolia, given the current crisis and the country’s proximity to Russia.
While also emphasizing the connection between security and economic prosperity, the major theme of the trip, as noted above, is likely to be reassuring Asia-Pacific partners that the U.S. remains committed to executing its Asia pivot, which Washington now officially refers to as the rebalance. Asian nations are concerned that the U.S. is retreating from the world even as it remains overly committed to the Middle East and Europe.
In seeking to dispel these concerns, Hagel told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview: “We’ve got over 330,000 personnel deployed in the Asia-Pacific, 180 ships, over 2,000 aircraft. It’s the largest combatant command we have in the world … I’m always a bit amused, perplexed, by people who say we’re retreating from the world. Where are we retreating from?”