PENTAGON— U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is traveling in Southeast Asia in a bid to strengthen ties with the militaries of partners and allies in the face of China's growing influence in the region. Hagel has arrived in Brunei for a meeting of defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN.
It is a visit meant to reassure partner nations that the United States stands behind them in their efforts to build their militaries.
At a stop in Indonesia, the U.S. defense secretary announced a $500 million deal for the sale of Apache helicopters to the Indonesian military.
“We are signing today the letter of agreement to go forward and sell those helicopters," said Hagel.
It might seem odd that Hagel is visiting Asia at a time when U.S. ships are poised to launch an attack on Syria. The Obama administration effort to turn its military focus to the Pacific is a high priority, though, and analyst Patrick Cronin said attending the ASEAN meeting is a matter of credibility for the U.S.
"For the United States not to show up at a meeting like this, not to take a trip that has long been planned, would send the completely wrong signal for the region," he said. "So it's very important, even while there are other global events and crises happening, that the secretary of defense has to maintain his schedule so that we can be a predictable partner and ally in Asia."
Hagel has announced Washington is boosting military aid to southeast Asia by 50 percent, in part to train and develop forces like these in the Philippines, Hagel's final stop on this visit.
Cronin calls it a wise investment at a time when the U.S. defense budget is tightening.
"Dollar for dollar, a little bit of engagement, a little bit of assistance to our partners and allies in East Asia can go much further than, say, sinking money into one large platform that may not be as useful for engaging this region," he said.
China is not on the itinerary this time, but Beijing's maritime disputes with the Philippines and other U.S. allies and partners are very much in the background of discussions.
Hagel's trip follows a visit last week by China's defense minister to the Pentagon where both sides talked about increasing exchanges and managing what could become a difficult relationship.
“Our goal is to build trust between our militaries through cooperation," said Hagel. "The transparency that we've had is important to reducing the risk of miscalculation and avoiding unintended tensions or conflicts."
U.S. and Chinese forces have been increasing cooperation, including a joint exercise with the Chinese navy off the coast of Hawaii last year.
Washington has, for the first time, invited China to take part in large multinational exercises next year.