Defense chief Chuck Hagel seeks to reassure Asia allies

SINGAPORE — Chuck Hagel emerged from combat in the Vietnam War with two Purple Hearts and "a sense of how important it would be for America to engage wisely in Asia," as he put it to top defense officials gathered here.

Now, more than a year after President Obama pledged to refocus America's security strategy toward Asia, Hagel is using his first visit to the region as Defense chief to reassure allies that the so-called pivot won't be derailed by Pentagon budget cuts or competing demands from the civil war in Syria, the nuclear stalemate with Iran and other high-priority issues.

"The United States military is not only shifting more of its assets to the Pacific, we are using these assets in new ways to enhance our posture and partnerships," Hagel said Saturday at a regional security forum.

Although Hagel didn't say it, his weekend visit here also is intended to convince anxious allies that the administration isn't ignoring their concern about China's recent military buildup and increasingly assertive foreign policy. He hopes to bolster defense ties to traditional allies such as Japan and the Philippines and cement support for new partners, including Vietnam.

The regional shifts have added tension as Obama prepares to meet China's president, Xi Jinping, at a private estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif., late next week, their first summit since Xi took office in March.

The White House hopes to persuade Xi to help rein in North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile tests, to control what U.S. officials call pervasive cyber spying and digital theft by China, and to avoid aggressive moves in disputed shoals and islands in the South China Sea and near Japan that could destabilize regional peace.

Hagel had no formal bilateral talks scheduled with Chinese officials on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security conference, though he met informally Friday night with the deputy chief of staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. As in the past, Beijing sent a mid-level delegation headed by a military official, not its defense minister, to show its unhappiness with Washington's plans to boost its military presence in the region.

He also dined Friday night with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, and the two learned that they had served in combat on different sides in the Mekong Delta in 1968, Pentagon spokesman George Little said. Both men were wounded in the fighting.

With no new deployments or policies to announce, Hagel was left to tout developments begun under his predecessor, Leon E. Panetta, including sending 250 Marines to northern Australia and a littoral combat ship to Singapore. Hagel will visit the ship, the Freedom, on Sunday.

The Pentagon plans to assign 60% of its naval fleet to the western Pacific by 2020, up from 50% now. But the mandatory federal "sequestration" budget cuts have forced the Pentagon to trim about $40 billion in spending this fiscal year, and that has affected some training efforts and ship movements in Asia.

The Air Force 374th Airlift Wing, based at Yokota Air Base in Japan, for example, has reduced flying time by 25% and canceled participation in a joint exercise in Thailand, officials said.

A report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in March said the budget cuts could make the military pivot toward Asia untenable. "Plans to restructure U.S. military deployments in Asia may run up against more restrictive budget constraints," it warned.

But in his speech here, Hagel said budget pressures wouldn't undermine the emphasis on Asia.

"It would be unwise and shortsighted to conclude … that our commitment to the rebalance cannot be sustained," he said.

Hagel became the latest senior U.S. official to accuse China of launching cyber attacks on U.S. industry and defense systems, a charge Beijing has repeatedly denied. According to recent news reports, China's cyber spies have obtained data on two dozen U.S. weapon systems, including the combat ship that Hagel plans to tour.

Hagel provided no new details, but he said U.S. officials had expressed concern to Beijing "about the growing threat of cyber intrusions, some of which appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military."

He praised the establishment of a U.S.-China cyber working group, and said China's new defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, would visit the Pentagon this year. U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited China in April.

Hagel is scheduled to fly from Singapore to Brussels on Monday to attend a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers. Cyber warfare will be a top agenda item at the NATO conference, he said.

[Updated at 9:47 p.m. on May 31: After the speech, Hagel took questions from the audience, and he got an earful from Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of the People’s Liberation Army of China, who wanted to know why her nation shouldn’t view the U.S. moves in Asia with suspicion.

“We welcome a strong and emerging and responsible China,” Hagel replied.]

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