Growing engagement, cooperation mark Hagel's second Asia visit

26 Aug 2013 | Cheryl Pellerin

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived here, Aug. 22, on the first leg of a trip to the Asia-Pacific region to meet with counterparts and leaders from several countries and to attend a defense ministers meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

This is the secretary's second trip to the region since June.

Before visiting Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines in the days ahead, Hagel stopped at Marine Corps Base Hawaii-Kaneohe Bay here to thank 200 Marines and sailors for their service to the nation and to honor their part in President Barack Obama's strategic U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.

"This rebalance is not only about our security interests in this area, it's about a partnership of prosperity for this region of the world -- over 6 billion global citizens today," the secretary said.

Threats that confront the world today are not unique to a region, a country, a religion or an ethnic group, he added. The threats are universal and they make alliances even more important than they have been in the past.

"You are all part of it," Hagel told the Marines and sailors. "You are at the front end, ... the cutting edge, ... and what you do and how you do it is particularly important as to how the world sees America and how they view our ... intentions."

On Aug. 25 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a senior defense official said, Hagel will meet with his recently appointed counterpart, Defense Hishammuddin Tun Hussein. Hagel first met with Hishammuddin in June at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. During the meeting, both leaders emphasized the importance of working bilaterally and multilaterally toward greater stability in Southeast Asia. They also discussed cyber issues and transnational threats.

"Malaysia-U.S. defense ties have dramatically improved over the last several years," the defense official said. "We're doing a lot more cooperative activity, [and] we're doing a lot more together. This is an opportunity for them to really touch base on the bilateral defense relationship and see where we're headed in the years ahead."

Hagel also will meet with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to discuss overall defense relations and regional issues, including Hagel's recent consultations with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan, "which I think will be of great interest throughout the region," the defense official said.

Later in the week, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Hagel will meet with his Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro, whom the secretary also met with during the Shangri-La Dialogue. There, they reaffirmed the importance of deepening ties in support of the U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership, an initiative of Presidents Barack Obama and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono calling for closer ties between the two governments and societies.

In Singapore, the defense leaders also reviewed progress made in recent years to increase exercises, training and regular defense policy dialogues.

"With Indonesia, we also have a significant increase in defense cooperation over the last several years," the senior defense official said.

From Sept. 5 to Sept. 13, the United States and Indonesia will co-chair a counterterrorism ground exercise agreed upon by the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting plus eight countries, or ADMM Plus, the defense official said.

ASEAN was formed in 1967. Its 10 member states are Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Defense ministers from these nations are attendees of the annual ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting, or ADMM. The ADMM-Plus is made up of the 10 ASEAN members and its eight dialogue partners: the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, New Zealand and Russia.

In Jakarta, Hagel will meet with Yudhoyono, a respected leader with great influence in the region, the defense official said. "He's entering his last year in office," the official added, "so it's a nice opportunity to thank Indonesia for a lot of tremendous cooperation over the last several years."

The ADMM Plus meeting begins Aug. 28 in Brunei. This is only the second time the full 18-member ADMM Plus ministerial meeting will be held, and another senior defense official said it's important for the United States to be there for two reasons.

The first, he said, the forum is proving to be extremely action focused.

"The ADMM countries have three multilateral exercises this year, [and] one of our focuses in the rebalance to Asia is shifting from a history of almost [all] bilateral engagements to do more multilateral engagements, to do more with groups of countries to meet common challenges," he said. "ADMM is giving us a very good way to do that."

Brunei recently hosted a major humanitarian assistance-disaster response-military medicine exercise that included all 18 of the countries that will be at the ADMM Plus meeting, the official said, and will involve more than 3,000 personnel.

"We see those as part of the wave of the future -- how common challenges are going to be handled in this region," he explained. "So being at ADMM is an opportunity to continue focusing with this group of countries on doing those kinds of action-oriented [activities] on the defense side."

The second reason, the official said, is that ADMM offers a good opportunity to engage with partners all in one place.

"The secretary will be able to have bilateral engagements ... [and] he'll also see a few other of his ministerial counterparts for short side meetings," the official said.

After the ADMM Plus meeting, the secretary's final stop will be Manila in the Philippines.

There, Hagel will talk with President Benigno S. Aquino III, Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin and Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario about ongoing negotiations for a framework agreement that would allow U.S. forces to operate on Philippine military bases and in Philippine territory and waters to help build Philippine armed forces capacity in maritime security and maritime domain awareness.

"The negotiations just got underway a week ago and will be ongoing for some time," the defense official said.

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