Hagel visits Asia to reassure allies

Washington remains committed to bolstering its military footprint in Asia despite severe defense budget cuts, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Friday as he made his first visit to the region as Pentagon chief.

“We have been undertaking more new bilateral initiatives with partners than we ever have,” Hagel told reporters en route to this city-state, which is hosting an annual security conference known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, named for the luxury resort that has hosted the event since 2002.

The Obama administration’s strategy of deepening military engagements in a region where China’s military rise is causing angst has been stymied by an unprecedented fiscal squeeze, as well as a flurry of crises in Africa and the Middle East.

Still, Hagel said, as the Afghan war draws to a close, the policy known as pivoting to Asia remains “on track.”

The secretary said he intends to use the weekend gathering of defense officials to speak bluntly about cyber-espionage targeting the United States, a problem American officials describe as pervasive. They have accused China of being the most prolific and sophisticated culprit, a charge Beijing denies.

“Cyberthreats are real,” Hagel said, noting that he sees value in raising the issue in public and private deliberations with the Chinese. “They’re terribly dangerous.”

As in years past, Beijing is expected to send only a mid-level delegation to Shangri-La, a signal of the Chinese government’s displeasure with the United States’ appetite for a bigger security role in the region. Hagel is expected to meet with Chinese officials for informal discussions on the sidelines of the conference but will not hold formal bilateral talks with them because defense chiefs typically only do so with their counterparts.

Hagel’s trip will end in Brussels next week, where he will meet with other NATO leaders to discuss the Afghan war and other conflicts. He said the recent string of deadly attacks in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are drawing down, is worrisome, but not surprising.

“That’s not anything that anyone did not expect,” he said. “The Taliban was quite clear about that, so that isn’t anything that is particularly new.”

Before flying to Singapore, Hagel made an overnight stop in Honolulu, where he told U.S. troops that there are significant limits to the United States’ powers as the country wraps up a lengthy period of war. It is not the dominant nation it was in the second half of the 20th century, Hagel said.

“The difference is the United States held most of the cards after World War II,” he told the troops, speaking in an aircraft hangar next to an F-22 Raptor fighter plane. “We don’t hold all of the cards this time. And by the way, that’s a good thing. It allows other countries to share responsibilities.”

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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