ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT (AP) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will meet with Malaysia's defense minister this week, amid ongoing criticism about how well the search for missing Flight 370 has been conducted and coordinated with other nations.
The defense leaders will come together at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations hosted by Hagel in Honolulu. And a key topic will be how all the countries can better work together during disasters like the missing Malaysian Airlines plane and Typhoon Haiyan that ravaged the Philippines late last year.
"There's always lessons to be learned," Hagel said when asked Tuesday about the search for the plane by reporters traveling with him en route to Hawaii. "We're going to go back, the Malaysians will go back, all the ASEAN nations will go back and walk through this. What could have been done, maybe what should have been done, what needs to be done better. But coordination is a key part of this."
The desperate search across the southern Indian Ocean for debris from the missing airliner, now in its fourth week, has shown how far nations need to go to better share information and cooperate more aggressively during disasters, said senior defense officials, who spoke to reporters about Hagel's trip on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the meeting publicly in advance.
Their observations, however, reflected ongoing concerns, particularly from some of the families of Chinese passengers who were on the plane, about poor communication and coordination as the disaster unfolded.
Hagel, who has spoken to the Malaysian defense minister twice in recent weeks, said the U.S. has complied with that government's requests. But he said that dealing with the harsh realities of the disappearance, including the massive search area, presents "certain big limitations to how much we can do."
The U.S. has provided warships, search planes and high-tech equipment designed to help find the plane and its "black box" recorder once a more precise search area is identified.
According to officials, the ASEAN meeting will include discussions on how the nations can conduct military exercises that better mirror real disasters. They will also talk about security issues in the region and the increasing effects of climate change and extreme weather events.
Hagel proposed the idea to have a meeting of the ASEAN ministers as part of the Pentagon's ongoing effort to increase the U.S. focus on Asia.
"I want them to feel even more clarity about the U.S. commitment to the area, our coordination, our communications, the areas where we can cooperate more," Hagel said. "This is not about crowding anybody out. But it is about assuring the freedom of the sea lanes and the openness of our skies and cyber. And we're going to help continue to do that."
America's heightened interest in the Asia Pacific region includes Pentagon moves to send a littoral combat ship to Singapore, rotational deployments of Marines to Australia and the development of a second military radar site in Japan that is supposed to be finished later this year.
This is Hagel's fourth visit to the region in less than a year. It's the first ASEAN defense ministers' gathering to take place in the United States.
The shift to the Pacific has been carried out against the backdrop of escalating tensions in the region over disputed islands in the East China Sea, and China's growing military buildup.