Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just finished his remarks here at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore and has left for bilateral meetings.

What kind of speech was it? I ran into a couple of American journalists this morning who had seen a transcript of Hagel's speech and said there was not much in it. For news value, they were pinning their hopes on the Q&A. I think they will be disappointed, because I couldn't see much in his answers that would excite news editors. But there were a few ripples in Hagel's prepared remarks (transcript to come; UPDATE: Here it is) that are worth noting.

  • First, the rebalance, which is where Hagel started his speech. The speech was seemingly part of an American attempt to recast this policy shift. I've heard rumours that the Administration feels the rebalance was oversold and given too much of a military emphasis, and it wants to correct that.
  • Clearly, the US feels the rebalance has also upset friends and allies in other regions, because Hagel began by saying the rebalance had been misinterpreted and was not a retreat from other regions.
    • That's clearly a contradiction, and unconvincing. Resources, as Hagel himself said, are finite. If you direct more of them towards one priority, others must suffer.
  • Hagel also said the rebalance was primarily a diplomatic, economic and cultural shift.
    • Interpretation: it's not a military-led attempt to contain China. Well might he say that. Given how modest the military aspect of the rebalance have been so far, it would look like a pretty unconvincing attempt at containment.
  • Hagel talked about what the US was doing with various friends and allies in the region, and seemed to divide them into two groups.
    • First he talked about treaty allies and other close friends: Japan, ROK, Australia, Philippines and a couple of others.
    • Then he talked about Vietnam, Malaysia, Burma and...New Zealand. Ahem.
  • Hagel made a thinly veiled complaint about regional institutions needing to move from talking to action, then announced a meeting of ASEAN defence ministers in Hawaii next year!
  • Hagel made it clear that the US is nowhere near to accepting North Korea's nuclear status. He said regional countries should not be conducting business as usual with North Korea, and that the US would not stand by while North Korea developed a nuclear-armed ICBM.
  • Other than North Korea, the most direct statement of concern against another country was Hagel's statement that cyber theft and espionage activity 'appears' to be tied to China.

Image courtesy of IISS.