SEOUL, South Korea — In the four years since he announced a shift in U.S. foreign policy and defense strategy to counter China's ambitions in Asia, President Barack Obama has found himself perpetually sidelined from his goals by a series of escalating conflicts in the Middle East and budget crises at home.
A long-planned trip to the area in two weeks has been partially wiped out because of the government shutdown.
But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is forging ahead with a military agenda that reflects the Obama administration's rising security and economic interests in the region and his own passions for Asia.
After only seven months in the job, Hagel is here this week on his third trip as defense secretary to the region, including four days in South Korea — the longest stay by a U.S. defense secretary in a generation — and a stop in Japan.
The Asian rebalance, “is a priority,” Hagel said at a press conference Wednesday here with the South Korean defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin. “You always adjust your resources to match your priorities.”
The White House announced Wednesday that Obama had canceled his trip next week to the Philippines and Malaysia because of the budget standoff in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry will lead delegations to both countries instead.
The president is still scheduled to make the trip to Bali, Indonesia, to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting, where Asian leaders are gathering to discuss economic issues, and then to Brunei for the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But White House officials made it clear that those stops might also be canceled, depending on developments.
For Hagel, whose bruising January confirmation hearing, along with Obama's diminished interest in the Pentagon, has left him overshadowed by his former Senate colleague, Kerry, the so-called Asia pivot is both a test and an opportunity.
“With Secretary Kerry spending most of his time and energy on the Middle East, additional responsibility has fallen on Hagel to demonstrate the United States commitment to Asia,” said Ely Ratner, the deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
But, said Ratner, Hagel's efforts are “arguably at the cost of reinforcing perceptions in the region that the rebalancing policy is primarily a military endeavor.”
In Washington, some defense policy experts criticize the policy, saying it amounts to little militarily and is largely a repackaging of existing policies. Further, the policy has antagonized the Chinese, which some experts believe is needless.
Pentagon officials say they are managing the tensions while devoting new resources to a region of increased strategic interest after 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also argue that the “pivot” was meant to be focused on diplomacy and trade, but that their military might in the region — four littoral combat ships to be deployed in Singapore, increased joint military exercises with Asia and 2,500 Marines in Darwin, Australia — are more visible.
Although Obama has cut military spending in various parts of the world, it has remained largely unchanged in Asia. By 2020, the Pentagon plans to deploy 60 percent of its warships in the Pacific and 40 percent in the Atlantic, compared with the current 50-50 split.
Hagel's personal interest in the region comes from his father, a tail gunner who served in Southeast Asia and who died of a heart attack when Hagel was 16, and from Hagel's frequent trips there as president of the USO and as a business executive. As a Republican senator he brought Asian ambassadors to his home state, Nebraska, to give lectures and visit rodeos, and when he retired, it was the ambassador to South Korea who served as a host for his party.
The greatest U.S. threat in the region remains North Korea, which defense officials say contains the second-largest chemical weapons stockpile in the world and where a volatile government cycles through regular provocations.
“This is probably the only place in the world where we have always a risk of confrontation,” Hagel said during a visit to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea this week, as North Koreans gawked from a dozen feet away. “So it's a very important location that we need to pay attention to. There's no margin of error up here.”