Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin in Brunei on Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin in Brunei on Wednesday. DOD Photo/Marine Corps Sgt. Aaron Hostutler

Pentagon Pivots Within the Pivot, to Southeast Asia

First came the pivot to Asia. Now, there’s the pivot within the pivot. By Kevin Baron

BANDER SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei -- As the Obama administration shifts its national security resources and leadership focus toward Asia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week announced the United States would begin to hone particularly on Southeast Asia.

Hagel has leapfrogged around the Pacific for five days through Hawaii, Malaysia and Indonesia before reaching Wednesday’s main event, the start of the 2013 Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers meeting in Brunei. Sitting at the southern gates of the disputed territorial waters and islands of the South China Sea, and with warships visibly trawling offshore, the military chiefs of Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and others all agreed on one thing, according to senior U.S. defense officials: they welcome President Obama’s pivot.

Defense leaders from across the region thanked Hagel on Wednesday for the Pentagon’s retargeted attention and asked the U.S. for help in several areas, including setting up a hotline for managing disputes with China, increasing cybersecurity in Japan, providing better inshore maritime defenses against piracy and fishery poaching, and keeping the pressure high against North Korea.

U.S. officials said they still consider North Korea to be as dangerous as they did this spring, when Pyongyang threatened the U.S. with nuclear attack. 

“Yes, there is still ‘heighten tensions’ on the peninsula, in that you still have no abatement, as far as we can discern, of their nuclear weapons program and ICMB programs,” said a senior U.S. defense official. “And those are ultimately the litmus test around which we judge North Korean behavior.”

“You might say that there’s been a lull in some of the activity and rhetoric, and that the north is on a bit of a charm offensive, for the moment. But again our position, until we sort of see some progress on the two issues I mentioned, and/or progress toward credible and authentic negotiations towards that end, I think, that’s -- our assessment remains very similar as to where it was just a few months ago,” the official said.

Japan and South Korean officials indicated to Hagel they were pleased with the international community’s support but remained on edge about North Korea’s quest for nuclear-tipped missiles.

“The international response has been very, very strong,” another senior U.S. official said, “and the [North] Koreans did not gain any really, edge or advantage from that behavior. And now we see the [North] Koreans reaching out. So there’s a recognition of a -- at least for the time -- changed behavior and possibly changed strategy by the North Koreans.”

In Washington, skeptics often question if the Pentagon’s pivot or “rebalancing” is a real shift or just a paper-thin bit of White House rhetoric that oversells the reality of the U.S. military’s intentions and action. Out here, U.S. officials argued, the pivot is real.

“They’re feeling it, they’re seeing the cooperation,” a senior defense official said. U.S. officials briefed reporters after a series of bilateral meetings between Hagel’s delegation and those of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, as well as pull-aside meetings with defense leaders, including from China. Regional leaders, the U.S. officials said, welcomed recent increases in military training opportunities with their American counterparts, as seen in additional exercises, exchanges and senior-level engagements.

The conference is being held at a sprawling luxury resort in Brunei that overlooks the South China Sea, fittingly. All of the country leaders with ongoing territorial disputes in the sea, and with whom Hagel met on his first day of the conference, told the Pentagon chief they are concerned that more aggressive pursuits of those claims could result in military conflicts. Ministers have long called for a code of conduct for the sea, which U.S. officials said is being hashed out later by ASEAN foreign ministers, not defense ministers. “But there was a recognition that ASEAN will have formal discussions with the Chinese on this issue soon,” a senior U.S. defense official said.

In the meantime, the region’s defense leaders called on the U.S. to help establish new ways of their own to reduce those tensions, including setting up hotlines for communications with China, new informal agreements on first use of force and avoiding aggressive behavior among all claimants to the sea.

“They were looking to us,” said a third senior U.S. defense official, “…to actually discuss what are some mechanism that can be put in place to reduce risk in areas where there are potential disputes.” Specifically, Southeast Asian defense leaders asked if it were possible to begin practicing or exercising out existing international regulations on avoiding collisions and dealing with unexpected encounters at sea.

U.S. and Japanese defense leaders, meanwhile, agreed to begin working on a new cybersecurity agreement. It is necessary, senior U.S. officials explained, because information security in Japan’s government and defense industry is considered vulnerable. “They have no formal security clearance and classification system,” said the first senior U.S. defense official. Japan’s legislature is working on a fix but the U.S. has had to deal with Japan’s lax cybersecurity before, the official explained. “We’ve had to work with them on the F-35 on this issue; we’re starting to be able to branch out into new areas, such as cyber and others.”

On one scale, the U.S. sees Southeast Asia’s interest in the pivot as stemming from having a history where countries within the region long have enjoyed few external threats and instead have focused on their internal security. Now there is a desire to work together to build external defenses, which requires a bit more U.S. help than a shopping list of high-end military equipment.

“We’re not out to get them to spend more money,” said the second senior U.S. defense official. The easier and cheaper way to convince Southeast Asian security leaders to buy into Obama’s pivot is by offering American military education and training, they argued.

ASEAN ministers on Wednesday accepted Hagel’s invitation to meet next year in Hawaii. “I’m obviously very pleased about that,” Hagel said. “It will give us another opportunity to strengthen, deepen the relationship with our partners here in the Asia-Pacific.”