US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ventured to 'Asia's third island chain' this week, rolling out the welcome mat for ASEAN defense ministers in Honolulu.
The first US-ASEAN Defense Forum, which concludes today, marks the first leg of Hagel's fourth official trip to the Asia Pacific. Subsequent stops will include Japan, Mongolia and China, to which Hagel is making his first visit as defense secretary.
Hagel is being made out as something of an old China hand by the Pentagon. 'He's very much looking forward to this visit, having hosted his Chinese counterpart (late August) here at the Pentagon,' said Defense Department Press Secretary Navy Real Admiral John Kirby at a press briefing on 27 March. 'He has longstanding ties to China, beginning when he traveled there for business in the early 1980s. He also built strong relationships with senior Chinese leaders while serving as a US Senator.'
The press secretary added that Hagel's China dialogue will focus on military-to-military ties and regional security issues.
The defense secretary's 1980s China business acumen may not help him much in Beijing. His reception in the Chinese capital will likely be determined by pronouncements from Hawaii.
The meeting in Honolulu is said to be focused on building multilateral security cooperation and partnerships between military and civilian agencies to improve humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. Certainly, botched regional responses to flight MH370 and logistical issues that hampered early relief efforts for victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year suggest such measures are necessary.
China, traditionally suspicious of US-ASEAN dealings, is watching Honolulu for signs of talk-creep. The state-run Global Times has already decided the meet is a ruse:
At the Summit, the US will also play up China's 'aggressive' stance on the East and South China Sea disputes, warn of China's establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea and increase ASEAN's threat perception vis-a-vis China.
The Global Times has long been a hawkish voice in China's media. Still, any post-Summit statement of US support for a Beijing adversary in the dispute would confirm for some the Global Times' fear-mongering, and make life harder for Hagel in Beijing.
The obvious candidate for such support is the Philippines, which on Sunday submitted an arbitration case to the UN against China's claims in the South China Sea. China harshly condemned the move, and the country's media has already taken note of US Ambassador to the Philippines Phillip Goldberg's recent comments on strengthening bilateral military ties and increasing the rotational presence of US troops in the country.
Moving beyond territorial bickering, the Defense Forum seems like a good idea. The scope of the dialogue could be increased in coming years. Writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ernest Bower notes a number of initiatives that could bear fruit, including institutionalising annual US-ASEAN defence engagement, announcing a defence trade initiative for ASEAN, increasing regional engagement with Thailand through a Friends of Thailand Contact Group to weigh in on the current crisis, and providing ASEAN-based training and capacity-building support for Myanmar's military.
Photo courtesy of the US Department of Defense.