HONG KONG — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Japan for talks with high-level officials. Upon arrival, he reassured the country that America is committed to Japan's security, but analysts say his mission is complicated by regional disputes over territory, as well as some lack of clarity in the U.S.'s own strategy.
Hagel is in the region to strengthen U.S. cooperation with its Asian allies on military and security issues, which White House officials said is essential in keeping Asia prosperous.
On Saturday, he said there is no evidence the U.S. is doing anything but strengthening its commitment to the security of Japan.
The trip comes as looming territorial disputes and growing nationalism have pulled countries in East and Southeast Asia further apart. The White House has admitted that the situation is “imperfect,” but has also stated its commitment to playing a positive role.
Alejandro Reyes, a visiting professor at Hong Kong University and studies U.S. foreign policy in the region, says that new governments in China, Japan and Korea are pushing for radical reforms at home and need to shore up the support of their own people.
“How do you do that? Partly, as you can see it in Russia too, and in the United States, in many different countries these things happen, that in order to boost your domestic political support you can use your foreign policy if you will, not to be reckless necessarily but at least to gear up some nationalist sentiment, patriotic fervor,” he said.
Patriotic fervor does not bode well with security cooperation.
Ahead of Hagel's visit, the United States decided to withdraw its participation in a ship parade held by China, after Beijing refused to invite Japan.
The two Asian neighbors are caught in a bitter territorial dispute over small islands in the rich resource waters northeast of Taiwan.
The United States has maintained neutrality on the issue, but as Japan's closest ally in the region, Washington has a treaty obligation to defend the country in case of aggression.
Reyes says that budget restructuring within the U.S. military, as well as a cautious posture in President Barack Obama's foreign policy elsewhere has some ramifications in Asia as well.
“The hard question, particularly when leaders in this region look at what is gone on in Syria, what's gone on in Ukraine, the president drawing red lines and not actually backing up its words, there are questions, legitimate questions particularly I would say in Japan what would happen if there was conflict between China and Japan? Would the United States actually come on the side of Japan as strongly as the Japanese might hope?” said Reyes.
On Saturday, Hagel said that it is predictable that an event such as Russia's annexation of Crimea might resonate in other areas of the world, including Asia.
He said, anytime a nation tries to impose its will to violate the territorial integrity of another nation by force, the world takes note.
Hagel added that in such a crisis "allies are going to look at each other to be assured."