09/09/2013 01:08 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

Hagel's Productive Asia-Pacific Tour

While the Obama Administration is in the surreal situation of suddenly mounting its biggest congressional lobbying effort since national health care on behalf of missile and bombing raids against Syria, it's important not to lose site of a more coherent aspect of the president's geopolitics. That's the Asia-Pacific Pivot, our big geopolitical pivot from fateful over-engagement with the Islamic world to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific.

Wait. If Obama launches a war in Syria might that not spiral out of control, pin us down even more so in the Middle East, and make it impossible to complete the very geopolitical pivot he's been pushing as one of his biggest priorities? Why, yes, it could. But let's assume that doesn't happen.

And in that regard, more progress was made late last month and early this month in moving the U.S. forward in the Asia-Pacific. It wasn't dramatic, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid a lot of track, as the saying goes, in getting things up and running. Grand strategies aren't just about grand speeches, they're also about groundwork. And even though the core of this grand strategy has the benefit of relative simplicity -- promote American interests by aligning with less powerful countries and strengthen multilateral cooperation to protect against nascent superpower China and assist with the challenges of natural disaster, environment, and development; resist China's hoped-for hegemony in the region by promoting an open door for all (guaranteed in large part by the US Navy); and contain China's global ambitions while pursuing joint interests with the People's Republic when possible -- it must play out across a vast and complex region.

With the Atlanticist Secretary of State John Kerry focusing most on Europe -- over the weekend he charmed the French, the only country to offer active participation in our attack on Syria, by delivering a lengthy paean to the greatness of France, in flawless French -- and the Middle East, it's Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel who is playing the lead role in the Asia-Pacific. He wrapped up another big trip to the region at the end of August, visiting four countries in eight days and, more importantly, meeting privately with every defense minister in the region.

While he was on the trip, Hagel's advisors let it be known that the the former Nebraska senator, the first defense secretary whose military service was strictly as an enlisted man and not an officer, will make a similarly lengthy tour of the Asia-Pacific, just as a matter of course, four times a year.

Hagel visited with the Marines at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii as he kicked off his latest big tour of the Asia-Pacific, telling them they are key to the Pacific Pivot. After checking in for overview purposes at Pacific Command headquarters in Honolulu, Hagel continued on to Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines. He met with all of the Asian defense ministers on this trip, including the Chinese defense minister.

It's his second such trip in his first six months as SecDef and another will take place in the next three months, underscoring the commitment to the Asia-Pacific Pivot.

Planning and negotiations for the sweeping Trans Pacific Partnership on trade and investment continued as well, with another negotiating session underway in Brunei. China is excluded from the TPP.

Hagel wrapped up his trip in Malaysia and moved on to Indonesia after a significant address. "Security is a critical foundation of prosperity," Hagel said in Kuala Lumpur. Referring to China's extraordinary claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, as well as regional challenges around natural disaster, a huge issue in the Asia-Pacific, and terrorism, he declared: "Trade cannot flourish in waters that are contested by force; societies cannot thrive under the threat of terrorism; and commerce cannot be sustained in areas devastated by natural disasters."

Part of the package for his hosts in the country in which the young Barack Obama spent much of his boyhood? A big shipment of Apache helicopters for the Indonesian military.

The reason for Hagel's trip taking place when it did came next, in Brunei. There he took part in the annual ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Defense Ministers) Defense Ministers Meeting. ASEAN consists of Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. During an important side meeting, Vietnamese Defense Minister General Phung Quang Thanh invited Hagel to visit America's old enemy next year, and the decorated Vietnam War veteran said it would be his honor to do so. Vietnam is seeking advanced US weaponry, in part to help avoid being overawed by China. But its human rights record is an issue for arms sales. Though not so much of one, as some other history shows.

During the meeting, according to reports, each country expressed strong support for a steady and increased US presence in the Asia-Pacific. Hagel invited the ASEAN defense ministers to an "informal" gathering next year in Hawaii. All 10 accepted.

Hagel then attended the ADMM-Plus ministerial conference in the same location the next day, hosted again by Brunei and made up of the 10 ASEAN defense ministers and their eight "dialogue partners": The US, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, New Zealand and Russia.

In the course of that meeting, Hagel held important side meetings with the defense ministers of Japan and South Korea, both of which hold by treaty important US ally status. If either is attacked by another, the US is legally bound to defend them, and vice versa.

Hagel agreed during his meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera to establish a joint cyber defense effort and visit Japan again next year. In fact, Hagel will visit Japan well before that, next month in fact, when he and top Japanese leaders will hold lengthy and in-depth discussions about joint security issues, including China's moves in the East China Sea, and Japan's plans to significantly upgrade its military.

There will probably also be a celebration of Japan winning the 2020 Olympic Games for Tokyo. In a Saturday vote in Buenos Aires, with important support from American representatives, the International Olympic Committee chose the Japanese capital over the other two finalists, Madrid, Spain and Istanbul, Turkey. New Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who did graduate work at USC, flew from the G-20 summit in Russia directly to Argentina to drive home Tokyo's bid for the Olympics.

Tokyo is now one of only five cities to have twice hosted the Summer Olympics, with the other four being Los Angeles, Paris, Athens, and London, which has held three Summer Olympic Games. When it was still in the midst of its miraculous post-World War II comeback, Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics. Its second hosting will mark its continued status as a major power, as well as the rise of the Asia-Pacific. Last year's Olympics were of course in London, the only city to hold three Olympics. The Olympics before that, in 2008, were in Beijing, and proved to be a massive festival of China's emergence.

Hagel's meeting with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin brought out the fact that Hagel will travel to the South Korean capital of Seoul in October to attend the annual Security Consultive Meeting. As part of that trip, Hagel will join South Korean leaders in helping commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.

On the last stop of this tour, Hagel met with Philippine government and defense leaders and later paid his respects to the many thousands of American troops laid to rest at the Manila American Cemetery.

The relationship between the US and the Philippines has been complex throughout the century-plus during which it's existed. But since the US and Philippines fought side by side against Japan in World War II after the US had granted independence to the colony it seized and from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and brutally took charge of in a war against Filipino freedom fighters, the positive has outweighed the negative.

"Our close ties to the Philippines have been forged through a history of shared sacrifice and common purpose," Hagel declared, "and continuing to strengthen the close partnership between our nations is an important part of America's long-term strategy of rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific."

Hagel held extensive talks with Philippine President Benigno Aquino, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on the details of a new Framework Agreement that will allow US forces to operate on Philippine military bases and in Philippine territory and waters and to help build Philippine capacity in "maritime security and maritime domain awareness." The Philippines is increasingly bumping up against Chinese naval elements trying to claim islands and waters off the coasts of the Philippines.

The last time the United States and the Philippines signed a mutual defense treaty was in 1951, and the new Framework Agreement would update the agreement for much more frequent troop rotations and related activities.

"The visit of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to the Philippines coincides with an important date for Philippines-US defense relations," Gazmin said at a joint press conference. "For it was on 30 August 1951 that the mutual defense treaty was signed. Today is the 62nd anniversary."

"The United States does not seek permanent bases in the Philippines," Hagel said. "That would represent a return to an outdated Cold War mentality. Instead, we are using a new model of military-to-military cooperation befitting two great allies and friends."

It also avoids looking like imperialism, something very much at issue the last time the US held massive bases in the Philippines at Subic Bay and Clark Field.

It's the same approach that the US is taking in Singapore and Australia, but with a more immediate influence on a very real flash point.

Indeed, just after Hagel left Manila a long scheduled visit to China by President Aquino fell through, with Chinese officials insisting that the Philippines back away from various legal challenges it has filed against Chinese maritime moves off its coasts.

Of course, there is a complex tapestry of history underlying everything in the Asia-Pacific. Much of it involves the US at key points in its development as a world power. Much of it has nothing to do with the US.

Included have been conflicts of the US vs. Japan and China and North Korea and Vietnam and the Philippines. China vs. Japan and South Korea and Vietnam, and now trying to intimidate the Philippines. South Korea vs. North Korea. Japan vs. China, South Korea, Philippines, the US, in fact the entire region in the days of Imperial Japan and the great and appalling Pacific War.

The Pacific War, long viewed as just a subset of World War II and given short shrift in favor of the fighting in glamorous old Europe, actually has tremendous relevance today in terms of its dynamics. A topic for another time.

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