WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel is headed to China.
It will be his first visit to the country as defense secretary, although the former Republican senator from Nebraska was there on business as far back as the early 1980s.
The Pentagon on Thursday announced the trip, which will follow a conference that Hagel is hosting next week in Hawaii for Southeast Asian defense ministers.
He also will make stops in Japan and Mongolia on this swing, which aides said shows how seriously Hagel takes the pivot toward that part of the world.
“This trip to Asia — his fourth in less than a year — is further evidence of the secretary's personal commitment to the president's rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary.
Hagel first issued the invitation for Southeast Asian defense ministers to gather in Hawaii during a high-profile speech last year at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
They will be working, in particular, on improving partnerships between military and civilian agencies to improve humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. Leaders from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development plan to join Hagel on the trip.
Kirby noted that the Defense Department expects those kinds of relief missions to increase in the future.
“Secretary Hagel believes that the United States and our partners must be prepared for that reality,” he said.
From Hawaii, Hagel will travel to Japan for his second trip to that country as secretary and then on to China.
Hagel views the U.S. relationship with China as key to the rebalancing effort, Kirby said.
“He will emphasize the importance of building trust, increasing openness and transparency and upholding international norms throughout his trip,” Kirby said.
After China, he will stop in Mongolia — the first visit to that country by a U.S. defense secretary in nearly 10 years.
Kirby noted Mongolia's growing economic importance and its deployment of forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as peacekeeping operations worldwide.