PENTAGON— U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is wrapping up meetings in Hawaii with counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The trip will next take him to Japan, China and Mongolia for a tour the U.S. says shows its ongoing commitment to the so-called "Asia pivot."
With Honolulu and U.S. military might as a backdrop, Hagel has been doing his best to sell his vision of America's role as a Pacific power.
"This gathering was an important milestone in America’s growing engagement of the ASEAN nations," he said. "This trip and the ASEAN-U.S. forum shows America’s rebalance to Asia Pacific remains a critical part of our national security strategy.”
For now, the focus is on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The U.S. contributed ships, planes and other technology to help search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and helped with recovery efforts in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, delivering food, water, medicine and blankets to devastated parts of the coastline.
Trip to focus on many issues
From Hawaii, Hagel heads to Japan, home to about 20,000 U.S. Marines and America's largest overseas airfields, for talks on Washington’s evolving partnership with Japan’s defense forces.
There the focus will likely shift to North Korea, where leader Kim Jong Un has been rallying troops and rattling regional nerves.
This week, Pyongyang tested missiles and launched artillery rounds into South Korean waters, something the U.S. defense secretary has promised to bring up when he meets with Chinese officials in Beijing.
Pivot's impact on China
And then there’s the question of the Asian pivot’s impact on China, which is growing its military and making ever-bolder territorial claims.
“From the Chinese perspective unfortunately anything that anybody does on its periphery is seen as against China," said Patrick Cronin at Center for a New American Security.
Hagel says Chinese fears are over-blown.
"We are competitors. We disagree in areas but we’re certainly not enemies. We’re doing a lot of things together were we can find some common interest," he said.
But China is likely to remain suspicious.
"That’s the million dollar question. Is it about containment or is that a very kind of a Cold War idea? Does China need containing in the same way the Soviet Union needed containing? Probably not is the general answer,” said James Hardy from IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.
But with regional stability a key to the global economy, U.S. defense officials say there is no choice but to “rebalance” military resources and capabilities to the region.