SINGAPORE — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel today sought to allay concerns among Asia-Pacific nations that steep military spending cuts will prevent the United States from delivering on its promises to place a new emphasis on security in the region.
“It is true that the Department of Defense will have fewer resources than in the past,” Hagel said during his much anticipated speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue. “It would be unwise and shortsighted, however, to conclude that our commitment to the rebalance cannot be sustained.”
President Barack Obama previously announced the “rebalance” or “pivot” of U.S. military attention to the Pacific. Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, filled in a few details at last year's Shangri-La, an annual conference of Asia-Pacific defense ministers that draws leaders from across the world.
But there has been a drumbeat of news from Washington about the ongoing budget cuts known as the sequester. That's caused anxiety in this part of the world — that the Pentagon would lack the financial resources to deliver on its new strategy.
And that's why the theme of Hagel's trip to the region has been “follow through.”
Hagel said during his speech that even under dire budget forecasts, the U.S. military still would represent almost 40 percent of global defense spending. He noted that he had ordered a strategic review, which is just wrapping up, that follows the principles of the ongoing rebalance.
He said that means the United States “will continue to implement the rebalance and prioritize our posture, activities and investments in Asia-Pacific. We are already taking many tangible actions in support of that commitment.”
Hagel also used the speech as an opportunity to highlight threats posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea's provocations, cyberattacks that “appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military” and festering territorial disputes that continue to raise tensions.
But much of the attention to the speech was on whether Hagel would indicate any backing off from the new strategy.
Hagel said the United States would stay the course on what was previously announced, but this was not a speech featuring bold new initiatives.
Rather, Hagel pointed to the steps already in motion:
» Adding capacity to U.S. ground forces in the Pacific as the U.S. is now out of Iraq and is exiting Afghanistan. That includes having the 1st and 3rd Marine Expeditionary Forces and the Army's 25th Infantry Division return to their home stations in the Pacific theater.
» Shifting 60 percent of Navy assets to the Pacific by 2020. He said the Air Force has placed a similar focus on the region, allocating tactical aircraft and bomber forces to the Pacific.
» Rotating up to four littoral combat ships through Singapore. During this trip, Hagel plans to tour the first, the USS Freedom, which arrived just a few weeks ago and will be conducting regional maritime engagements.
» Sending the second company-sized rotation of Marines to Darwin, Australia. Eventually 2,500 Marines will be deployed to Australia each year.
» Deploying advanced weapons systems to the region, including the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a fourth Virginia-class fast attack submarine deployed to Guam.
Hagel also emphasized the role of increased U.S. diplomatic engagement in the region and the growing intermilitary ties across the region.
He pointed to more than $100 million in funding for joint exercises in the region and new money to help students attend the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
He invited defense ministers within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to a meeting next year in Hawaii. Hagel said that would provide “another opportunity for us to discuss a shared vision for a dynamic, peaceful, and secure future for the region.”
One example of the new connections between countries came when Hagel spoke with the Vietnamese prime minister at the conference's opening dinner.
During that conversation about improving ties between the two countries, the men touched on the fact that they fought on opposing sides of the Mekong Delta in 1968. Both were wounded in combat during the war. Hagel accepted an invitation from the prime minister to visit Vietnam.
Hagel hit on his personal experiences in Asia during the speech, noting how his father flew in B-25 bombers in the South Pacific in World War II. He talked about the many people from small towns across Nebraska who were called to duty when war broke out on the Korean peninsula in the 1950s.
And he talked about volunteering for service in the Vietnam War, where he served on the front lines alongside his brother during one of the conflict's bloodiest stretches.
Hagel said he had little insight into the political decisions that sent American troops to Vietnam.
“I was simply doing my duty. But out of that experience, I learned how important it would be for America to engage wisely in Asia and throughout the world.”
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