ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — More than a year after the Obama administration announced it was shifting its defense policy to focus on Asia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is trying to convince allies in the region that the so-called “Asia pivot” won’t be stymied by the severe budget cuts being imposed on the Pentagon.
“We are going to be limited in our budgets,” he told reporters as he flew to Singapore for a security conference during which he will meet with counterparts from Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam, among others. “That said, we’re on track” to move more defense assets to the Asia Pacific region, he said.
Hagel is making his first trip to Asia since becoming Defense secretary in February amid deepening concerns about the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program.
As part of the Asia pivot, the U.S. has pledged to place 60% of its naval assets in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020, up from 50%. But the so-called budget sequester, which calls for deep spending cuts in defense and social programs as a way of forcing Congress to reach a deficit reduction compromise, requires the Pentagon to shrink its spending by as much as $41 billion in the current fiscal year, and an unknown amount next year.
The sequester has already resulted in cutbacks to training and ship movements in Asia, Pentagon officials have said. The Tokyo-based 374th Airlift Wing, for example, has had to reduce its flying time by 25% and cancel participation in a joint drill in Thailand.
The shift to Asia was designed in part as a check on the growing power of China, although U.S. officials don’t say so publicly. China was named in secret portions of a Pentagon report disclosed Monday by the Washington Post as having used cyber breaches to steal data on two dozen U.S. weapon systems, including the littoral combat ship, one of which Hagel plans to tour on Sunday. Cyber espionage and cyber war will be a major topic at the Shangri La conference, Hagel said, though he declined to offer a damage assessment in regard to the weapons system breaches.
Another topic at the Singapore conference will be North Korea, whose bellicose rhetoric and provocative actions over the last year have unnerved its neighbors. Hagel is scheduled to meet Saturday with ministers from Japan and South Korea.
"We have a lot to talk about in terms of shared security interests, especially given some recent provocations and provocative rhetoric from North Korea," said a U.S. official who spoke under ground rules that he not be named.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, began his trip with a stop Thursday in Hawaii, where he told troops from U.S. Pacific Command assembled in front of an F-22 Raptor fighter jet that Asia “is going to have an awful lot to say about how the next world order is built.”
But unlike the years after World War II, when “the U.S. held most of the cards,” Hagel said, “We don’t hold all the cards this time.”
At last year's Singapore conference, Hagel’s predecessor, Leon E. Panetta, announced steps the U.S. military was taking to move forces to Asia, including the deployment of Marines to Australia and of a littoral combat ship to Singapore. But Hagel aides downplayed the possibility of new deployments being revealed in a speech the secretary was scheduled to deliver to open the conference Saturday morning.
“The focus is really follow-through for us this year,” the defense official said.
Budget cuts will “make things harder,” the official said, but “we're very confident that we are managing to maintain the focus of the shift to Asia … to deliver on what we need to do, and that we'll be able to do that no matter what the buffeting of politics.”
A March report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said the budget cuts could make the current Asia rebalancing plans untenable.
“Looming automatic spending cuts … would entail significant and precipitous reductions in military end-strength, and operational and training funds, as well as delays in investments,” the report said. “Plans to restructure U.S. military deployments in Asia may run up against more restrictive budget constraints.”
Hagel is scheduled to fly from Singapore to Brussels on Monday to attend a meeting of NATO defense ministers. Cyber warfare will also be a top agenda item at the NATO conference, he said.
“We’ve got to find ways here working with the Chinese, working with everybody [to create] rules of the road, an international understanding,” he said.