SINGAPORE — While much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy remains focused on what the president this week called emerging threats “from South Asia to the Sahel,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has laid claim to this corner of the world.
Hagel, who has made five trips to the Far East in the past year, has sustained President Obama’s long-touted tilt toward Asia, even as he has been a nearly invisible player in the unending crises elsewhere that have eclipsed it.
By interest, history and temperament, Hagel appears to feel a sense of ownership in Asia.
Despite the stalling of the Pacific trade agreement that is another cornerstone of Obama’s Asia “rebalance,” Hagel can claim steady progress in the military’s role of building regional alliances and partnerships. But those gains risk being overtaken by China’s rapidly worsening relations with its neighbors and escalating belligerency from North Korea.
In a speech Saturday morning to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional defense conference he first attended as a senator more than a decade ago, Hagel criticized China’s “destabilizing, unilateral actions” in asserting its maritime claims against other countries in the region. Aides said he purposely used language sharper than in previous public statements on the subject.
“We take no position on competing territorial claims,” Hagel said, repeating U.S. insistence that its interests are rooted in a desire to balance alliances with Asia’s smaller partners and a smooth relationship with China. “But we firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion or the threat of force to assert these claims.”
In questions following Hagel’s remarks, a Chinese general testily asked the defense secretary to explain what she called his own “subtle threat of force” in restating the U.S. defence commitment to Japan even as he called for a negotiated settlement of contesting claims to East China Sea islands.
“America’s position is clear,” Hagel said. “These territorial disputes should be resolved through international law.” But at the same time, he said, the United States has treaty commitments to several countries in the region, including Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.
Returning to familiar themes, Hagel nudged South Korea and Japan toward greater defense cooperation that will allow a unified missile defense system against North Korea, which is suspected of preparing a fourth nuclear test. He called on China to play “a more active role” in using its influence on Pyongyang, urged Thailand’s military to restore democracy and praised Burma for ending military dictatorship.
If anything, Hagel indicated, “the Asia-Pacific’s shifting security landscape makes America’s partnerships and alliances indispensable as anchors for regional stability.”
Restating the administration’s commitment to Asia, he emphasized that the regional policy Obama unveiled in 2011 had borne fruit: from ships, aircraft and troops newly deployed to the Pacific, to new basing and cooperation agreements, and “as many as 130 exercises and engagements, and approximately 700 port visits annually.”
While budgets may be cut elsewhere, Hagel said, “both President Obama and I remain committed to ensuring that any reductions in U.S. defense spending do not come at the expense of America’s commitments in the Asia-Pacific,” where they have said 60 percent of U.S. air and naval assets will be based by 2020.
Although the administration has promised that resources saved by ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be used both for the Asia rebalance and for the new Middle East and African counterterrorism strategy that Obama outlined this past week in an address at the U.S. Military Academy, a senior defense official said little competition was involved.
Marines sent many times over to Afghanistan are only too happy to return to amphibious deployments in the Pacific, along with naval vessels, while Special Forces dominate counterterrorism operations, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Asia, Hagel said in his speech, is an example of the stronger “global partnerships and alliances” Obama described this week as a cornerstone of his foreign and security policy.
As he wound up his remarks, Hagel noted that “history is full of ironies,” including his scheduled meeting later Saturday with his counterpart from Vietnam, Gen. Phung Quang Thanh. “Gen. Thanh joined the Vietnamese army in 1967,” Hagel said, “the same year I joined the U.S. Army and arrived in Vietnam.”
Hagel’s Vietnam experience is only part of his attachment to Asia, the senior defense official said. His father was a bomber tail-gunner in the Pacific in World War II. As president of the USO and a business executive who founded a lucrative cellphone network, Hagel traveled frequently to the region even before his election to the Senate in 1996.
Aides portray Hagel’s dedication to the Asia-Pacific and his determination to succeed here as equal to that of Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s highly publicized (but stalled) efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace, only with less media attention and more potential for long-term success.
“I’ve got this long history, this confluence with my background, my history,” said the official, describing what he said was Hagel’s thought process. “It’s what I’m good at, what I’m interested in.”