By David Brunnstrom
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - The United States will not be deterred from plans to strengthen its military position in Asia by emerging threats elsewhere, the U.S. defense secretary said on Thursday as he prepared to meet allies in the region worried by an increasingly assertive China.
President Barack Obama, in a keynote foreign policy speech on Wednesday, surprised and disappointed some in Asia when he made no specific reference to what has been a signature policy theme of his administration, the rebalancing of U.S. military, political and economic focus toward Asia.
He talked at length instead about emerging threats, including by militants operating from the North African region.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters en route for Singapore, where he will speak at a regional security forum before heading on to Afghanistan and Europe, that the U.S. commitment to Asia was as strong as ever.
“What the president said yesterday and his explanation in addressing the emerging threats in all corners of the word will not inhibit, or shorten, or lessen our asset position here in the rebalancing to the Asia Pacific,” he said when asked if resources earmarked for Asia after the winding down of the Iraq and Afghan wars might be rediverted to deal with the new threats Obama referred to.
“That doesn't diminish at all the commitment, nor will it, that we have made to this rebalance in Asia and the Pacific.”
Hagel said he would have no fewer than 10 bilateral meetings and three tri-lateral meetings aimed at reinforcing relationships and calming tensions during his two days starting Friday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a forum that brings together defense and security experts and officials from Asia, the United States and Australia.
It will be Hagel’s fifth visit to Asia since he became secretary of defense last year. He was last in the region two months ago ahead of a visit by Obama. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also visited Asia this year.
“The visits are part of showing our commitments to this Asia Pacific rebalance,” Hagel said.
Hagel’s meetings will include a brief one with a Chinese army general heading China’s delegation to the forum. Hagel said he would be “direct” about areas of difference, while seeking to develop military-to-military contacts aimed at improving communication and defusing tensions.
Hagel said he would stress the need to maintain open seas and freedom of navigation, which some fear is threatened by China’s increasingly assertive maritime claims.
“The nations of this region, Asia-Pacific, rely on those freedoms, individual rights,” Hagel said, adding that he would raise issues where we think China is overplaying its hand and is presenting new challenges and tensions.”
“But at the same time we still have to develop relationships of cooperation,” he said.
In a trilateral meeting with his Japanese and South Korean counterpart on Saturday, Hagel will seek progress in missile defense cooperation, given the threat posed by nuclear-armed North Korea.
A senior U.S. defense official said that the United States was also keen to see both South Korea and Japan further expand their engagement in Southeast Asia.
In a keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to highlight the need for Japan to take a bigger role in global security, something the United States would like to see.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)