Budget Cuts Won’t Reduce U.S. Focus on Asia, Hagel Says

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sought to reassure Asian allies today that budget cuts won’t derail the U.S. commitment to their security.

One year after the Pentagon said it would “rebalance” its strategy to put more emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department faces as much as $500 billion in cuts over the next nine years as part of a deficit-reduction law.

“It is true that the Department of Defense will have fewer resources than in the recent past,” Hagel said in remarks prepared for delivery today at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual Asian security conference in Singapore. “It would be unwise and short-sighted to conclude, however, that our commitment to the rebalance cannot be sustained.”

The U.S. is beefing up its military resources in Asia as a check against a rising China and increased tensions in the South China Sea. Hagel’s predecessor as Pentagon chief, Leon Panetta, said last year that 60 percent of U.S. naval forces would be based in the Pacific by 2020, compared with about 50 percent today.

Hagel used his first major speech on Asia to emphasize that the Obama administration is committed to a strategic shift toward Asia even as the military shrinks.

Ground troops based in the Pacific region are returning after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. A second company-sized rotation of Marines recently arrived in Darwin, Australia, for what will eventually be a 2,500-member force.

Tomorrow, Hagel will visit the first vessel from the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program, which is deployed in Singapore. He said the Pentagon plans to deploy its most advanced fighter jets -- the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- to Japan, and send a fourth attack submarine to Guam.

Priority Posture

While the Pentagon considers ways to cut billions of dollars from its budget, “I can assure you that, coming out of this review, the United States will continue to implement the rebalance, and prioritize our posture, activities and investments” in the Asia-Pacific region, he said.

At a conference that includes Chinese military officials, Hagel pointed a finger at China for alleged computer attacks that he said require international cooperation to defeat.

“The United States has expressed our concerns about the growing threat of cyber intrusions, some of which appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military,” Hagel said. “We are determined to work more vigorously with China and other partners to establish international norms of responsible behavior in cyberspace.”

Meeting Chinese

Hagel told reporters yesterday he plans to meet informally with the Chinese delegation at the conference, partly to discuss cybersecurity.

President Barack Obama plans to host a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California on June 7, and Hagel said he’s invited the Chinese defense minister to visit the Pentagon in August.

Hagel said much of the U.S. strategy in Asia depends on strengthening ties with its allies. Hagel this weekend is inviting defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to a conference next year in Hawaii.

“I believe this first-ever U.S.-hosted meeting of ASEAN defense ministers will provide another opportunity for us to discuss a shared vision for a dynamic, peaceful and secure future for the region,” he said.

The speech offered no new initiatives to increase the U.S. military posture in the region.

The rebalance “is primarily a diplomatic, economic and cultural strategy,” Hagel said.

Hagel reiterated U.S. concern about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

“The United States will not stand by while North Korea seeks to develop a nuclear-armed missile that can target the United States,” he said, pledging to “take all necessary steps to protect our homeland and our allies from dangerous provocations, including significantly bolstering our missile defense throughout the Pacific.”

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