HONOLULU, April 2, 2014 – At a hotel here, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will join defense ministers from 10 Asia-Pacific countries for the official start of an unofficial meeting of defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, their first in the United States.
Hagel himself invited the ministers here, he told reporters traveling with him on the military plane that brought him yesterday to the April 1-3 ASEAN meeting and will later take him on to Japan, China and Mongolia -- a 10-day trip that will be his fourth official visit to the Asia-Pacific region in less than 12 months.
Last June, at a luncheon for the ASEAN defense ministers during the Shangri-La Dialogue meeting in Singapore, Hagel invited them to Hawaii this year. All 10 ministers -- from Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- immediately accepted his invitation.
“When I invited the ASEAN defense ministers last year to Hawaii, the thought I had then … is it’s more and more important that the United States, as we’ve moved over the last three years into a rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, be clear in our intent,” the secretary said.
The purpose of the rebalance, he said, is to strengthen U.S. relationships in the Asia-Pacific with treaty allies and partners, and coordinate efforts.
“ASEAN represents the one organization in the Asia-Pacific where there is a cohesiveness, a consolidation, a coordination among 10 nations [and] among the ASEAN Defense Ministers-Plus organization,” Hagel said.
The ADMM-Plus is made up of the 10 ASEAN defense ministers and eight dialogue partners, who are the defense ministers from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, New Zealand and Russia.
Hagel said the United States has been participating in the ADMM-Plus since 2010, representing “a tremendous opportunity to connect, to coordinate, to communicate, to reinforce the U.S. message about our intent and our cooperation.”
The secretary added, “When we designed the two-and-a-half days of informal meetings [for the ASEAN defense ministers], I wanted to ensure that it was more than military-to-military events and I think we’ve done that.”
In attendance will be U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, and the head of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, he said. Tours will be held in a new U.S. Department of Commerce technical facility and several of the events will focus on humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief activities, Hagel added.
“All of this is about a more stable, secure Asia-Pacific,” he said. “That means a prosperous region of the world, [one] that presents possibilities and hope for all its people.”
Over the past 25 years the Asia-Pacific region has done well, the secretary added, with a population of more than 600 million people and huge emerging economies.
“They’ve done that essentially because they’ve had wise leadership in how they have handled their differences and their areas of competition,” said Hagel, adding, “It’s imperfect -- there’s been conflict. There are still issues [and] disagreements and we’ll talk about those. I intend to talk about those when I go to China and Japan as well.”
Hagel said at the defense ministers’ meeting he would also discuss the United States’ ongoing fiscal constraints and its commitment, nevertheless, to the Asia-Pacific rebalance.
“I have been very clear and direct in what I’ve said about the fiscal restraints we are dealing with [and] working through,” Hagel said, “and I’ve made very clear the prioritization [for the Asia-Pacific rebalance] in the president’s budget that I presented to Congress and that Congress will be dealing with for the next few months.”
The secretary added that the department’s recent Quadrennial Defense Review also prioritizes the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and named ongoing military activities in the region -- rotating littoral combat ships to Singapore, rotating 1,150 Marines and four CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters to Australia, continuing negotiations with the Philippines to use Subic Bay resources on a rotational basis, progress made with the AN/TP2 missile defense radar site in Japan, a breakthrough late last year on the Futenma replacement facility when the governor of Okinawa approved a critical landfill permit, and continuing efforts and posturing of assets in the Asia-Pacific.
“I think it’s pretty clear, even with budget constraints … that this is a priority and we’ll fulfill the commitments we’ve made,” Hagel said, “and I do look forward to talking about this with our ASEAN partners.”
The secretary added, “I want the defense ministers, after they leave Hawaii, to feel even more clarity about the U.S. commitment to the [Asia-Pacific], our coordination, our communications [and] the areas where we can cooperate more and more -- and certainly humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is one of those.”
There is a tremendous amount of capability and capacity in the Asia-Pacific region, Hagel said, and the United States represents a good amount of it.
“This is not about crowding anybody out,” he said, “but it is about assuring the freedom of the sea lanes and the openness of our skies and cyber, and we’re going to continue to help do that.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinAFPS)