WASHINGTON— U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is preparing for a week of meetings that highlight the U.S. pivot to Asia. Starting Tuesday, he hosts defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in Hawaii before traveling to Japan and China.
The U.S. has labeled some of the Chinese actions in disputed waters off its eastern and southern coasts as provocative.
These are Chinese military training exercises in the East China Sea -- as seen in video supplied by China to western news agencies -- where China declared a controversial Air Defense Identification Zone last year. In December, the U.S. said one of its warships was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision with a Chinese naval vessel.
'Pivot to Asia'
These and other incidents occurred even as the U.S. seeks to focus foreign policy and trade on Asia.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, during a trip to Washington last year, called into question the reasons for the United States' so-called “Pivot to Asia."
"I hope this rebalance to Asia is not aimed at China and weakening China," he said.
Chang will meet with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel when he stops in Beijing during a week-long trip to the Pacific region.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters on Thursday that Hagel's trip is a sign of Washington's renewed commitment to the region.
"Further evidence of the secretary’s personal commitment to the president’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region," he said.
When ASEAN defense ministers met last August, they discussed maritime territorial disputes in the region. Talks this week in Hawaii also will focus on the issue -- particularly Beijing's approach to bolstering its claims over islands in the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
The U.S. defense secretary will travel from Hawaii to Japan, which has its own maritime dispute with Beijing. But the disputed Senkaku Islands - which China calls the "Diaoyu" -- will not be the only topic.
North Korea's nuclear weapons program is also on the agenda in Tokyo, as well as in Beijing -- after North Korea test fired two medium range missiles just days ago.
North Korea's belligerence
In recent congressional testimony, the head of the United States Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said China continues to support North Korea militarily. This, he says, is not beneficial for regional peace and stability.
“North Korea is an ally of China, and they're closely aligned from a military perspective and have been for a number of years … my sense is, is that there is -- has been a close relationship on military capability and military equipment for some time, and it probably will continue,” said Locklear.
While Hagel has been to Asia, this will be his first visit to China, and it follows a meeting Monday between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping at the Nuclear Summit in The Hague.
Despite the tensions at sea, defense officials from both countries say they seek an increase in military-to-military communication to eliminate misunderstandings and reduce the risk of misjudgments.
Libo Lu of the VOA Mandarin service contributed to this report from Washington.