JERUDONG, Brunei (AFP) – Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel assured Asian nations on Wednesday that Washington’s long-term “pivot” to the region was not just rhetoric even as an escalating confrontation with Syria loomed over the talks.
U.S. officials said Hagel also called for restraint in the disputed South China Sea at a gathering in Brunei of defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China and elsewhere.
The two-day ASEAN meeting is the anchor of Hagel’s week-long trip to Southeast Asia but the mounting crisis between Syria and the West has repeatedly intruded.
Hagel told the BBC that American forces were in place and “ready to go” if ordered by President Barack Obama to punish the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
Syria came up in a meeting between Hagel and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin, with both men voicing grave concern about the use of chemical weapons, a U.S. defense official told reporters.
Hagel told Kim that gross violations of international law cannot go “unanswered,” said the official.
The Syria showdown is the latest Middle East crisis to complicate Washington’s so-called pivot or “rebalance” towards Asia.
The Obama administration wants to bolster trade and security ties with vibrant Asia-Pacific economies after a decade preoccupied by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Hagel told the ASEAN members the United States remained committed to its focus on the Asia-Pacific despite budget pressures, and the defense ministers praised America’s high-level attention to the region, officials said.
“Each of the countries expressed strong support for the US steady presence in this part of the world and viewed U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia as a key contributor to peace and stability in this region,” said a U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In the BBC interview broadcast on Wednesday, Hagel insisted the United States was serious about the pivot, saying “this area of the world is going to continue to be a significant part of redefining international affairs”.
Despite Pentagon budget cuts, U.S. officials say Washington will stick by plans to provide more military aid to countries anxious about China’s growing muscle.
Discussions at the ASEAN conference focused heavily on tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Southeast Asian countries have accused Beijing of taking an aggressive stance.
Defence ministers discussed possible practical steps to avert conflict over the rival claims, including a hotline between ASEAN states and China, exercises to avoid collisions at sea and an agreement on “no first use of force”, U.S. officials said.
ASEAN governments have called for a code of conduct in the waterway to ease tensions, a proposal endorsed by the United States.
China has shown little enthusiasm for the idea but this year promised to enter into future talks with ASEAN about it.
Hagel was careful to avoid castigating China and told the defense ministers Washington “does not expect any country to have to choose between the United States and China or any other country”, the U.S. defense official said.
The Pentagon chief is expected to meet China’s defense minister General Chang Wanquan on the sidelines in Brunei, after having hosted him in Washington earlier this month.
Hagel,in his BBC interview, acknowledged “differences” with China but said “the only way to get through those differences is to work through them”.
In talks with the Japanese and South Korean defense ministers, Hagel discussed the North Korean nuclear threat, calling for vigilance as well as diplomacy, officials said.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, also met his Vietnamese counterpart on Wednesday and accepted an invitation to visit the country in 2014, officials said.
For his part, Hagel invited the ASEAN members to meet in the United States next year, and the ministers agreed.
Hagel, who heads to the Philippines on Thursday to wrap up his trip, also met Myanmar’s defense minister in Brunei, the first meeting of the two countries’ defense chiefs in years.