Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrives in Hawaii at the start of a week-long trip to Asia.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrives in Hawaii at the start of a week-long trip to Asia. // Defense One/Kevin Baron

Hagel Begins Asian Pivot as the Middle East Burns

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT – In a way, it’s a trip that is as ambitious and emblematic of the Obama administration’s global security strategy.  The goal: on one side of the world, cement the beginnings of a massive 21st century shift of U.S. resources, firepower, and national security time and attention to Asia, while on the other side, keeping a watching eye on internal conflicts threatening to tear apart the Middle East.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel departed Washington on Thursday for an eight-day tour of Southeast Asia during which, aides said, he will seek new permissions to rotate additional troops, ships and aircraft through the region; call for deeper, regular senior-level relations among regional allies; and push countries to embrace multilateral security – all while receiving constant updates about the stability-threatening conflicts in Egypt and Syria. It is Hagel’s second trip to Asia in his first six months in office, and aides say a third trip is planned before the year’s end.

Hagel “is continuously looking for more ways to prioritize Asia” as part of the Obama administration’s stated “pivot” or “rebalance” to this region, said a senior defense official, during a briefing aboard the secretary’s plane en route to Hawaii.

“It occupies more and more time within the Pentagon, these relationships,” said the official. The secretary is scheduled to meet with roughly 200 U.S. Marines just returned from a deployment to Okinawa. From there, they had trained with Southeast Asian forces. It’s a deliberate choice. The Pentagon increased Marine deployments to Okinawa this year, a step that Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos frequently highlights as tangible evidence the so-called pivot is underway following a decade of fighting far from the seas in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The centerpiece of Hagel’s trip comes next week at the annual ASEAN defense minister’s conference, held this year in Brunei. Hagel is expected to continue talks with his Chinese counterpart, National Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan, who was at the Pentagon last week. Hagel will first stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Jakarta, Indonesia, with a final stop in Manila after the conference later next week. 

The countries are all examples, senior defense officials said, of where military relations have dramatically improved to the point the U.S. is asking for additional troop rotations. It’s part of the administration’s desired security architecture for the region. In the Philippines, the U.S. last week held a first round of negotiations to update the specifics of the treaty alliance and solidify the use of ports and other facilities. But the U.S. is not seeking to establish any new bases in Asia, officials stressed, calling the idea of additional bases an outdated and unwelcome “Cold War” and colonial-era perspective.

“We need to have forces here in the region,” the official said, justifying the Defense Department’s pivot as being necessary so that the U.S. can more efficiently train local forces (in counterterrorism and maritime security, especially) and be positioned to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters and other “contingencies.”

But with U.S. polls showing Americans wanting fewer global entanglements and dramatically reduced defense spending, and with Congress stuck in its budget limbo, the Afghanistan war still two years from Obama’s finish line, and Middle East countries embroiled in a bloody tectonic shift, it will be Hagel’s job to explain why Asian security, on top of all of that, is also a job for the United States. Hagel is scheduled to give a keynote speech Sunday at the Malaysian Institute of Defense.

From the Pentagon’s perspective, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are countries seeking greater security capabilities (and partnerships with the United States) to protect the economic growth of recent years. It’s also a chance for the United States to assure the nations retain close military ties to Washington, rather than giving a greater foothold in regional security to China and the ambitious People’s Liberation Army.

“What we’re trying to do is uphold a regional order,” said the senior defense official. “In no cases,” he later added, “do we ask countries to choose us over China.”