Doyle McManus: Chuck Hagel -- the Asia pivot is still on

Los Angeles Times Published:

Russian troops are massing menacingly on Ukraine's eastern border. The civil war in Syria is still raging, and 33,000 American troops fight on in Afghanistan. So where is Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel headed this week? To Hawaii -- for a meeting with defense ministers from Asia, the region the Obama administration still considers its top foreign policy priority.

"Asia is one of the great success stories of the world," Hagel told me in an interview in his Pentagon office last week. "There is really today in Asia, in the Asia Pacific region, no open conflict."

"What's happened in Ukraine is a good example of brute force, of hard power," he said. "(And) hard-power conflict is always going to be with us."

But the administration remains convinced that deploying "soft power" tools of diplomacy, security cooperation and trade can often prevent hard-power showdowns. In that realm, Hagel said, "Asia-Pacific has pointed the way," he said.

After his meetings in Hawaii, which will include soft-power sessions on trade and disaster relief as well as military cooperation, Hagel will head to Japan and China for thornier talks about security problems, including territorial conflict over islands in the East China Sea.

Hagel's trip is a deliberate statement to those who think the crisis in Ukraine means the administration should delay its long-promised pivot to Asia or even pivot back toward Europe again.

That won't happen, Hagel insists. The U.S. will stand by its NATO allies in any confrontation with Russia, he said, but there's no plan to increase American troop strength in Europe.

The White House has ballyhooed its actions in ordering U.S. military units to bolster Eastern Europe after Russia's seizure of Crimea. But in fact, they haven't amounted to much: 18 fighter jets deployed to Poland and Lithuania, an extended Black Sea cruise for a Navy destroyer and about 300,000 prepackaged field rations (but no weapons) for the Ukrainian armed forces.

U.S. support for Ukraine "has not pulled any assets away" from Asia or any other region, Hagel noted.

That minimalist military response to the Ukraine crisis stems mostly from Obama's desire to avoid escalating the conflict. Even if Russia moves troops into eastern Ukraine, Hagel said, the United States is staying out.

But it also reflects the Obama administration's larger map: Eastern Europe isn't among the president's top priorities. Asia still is.

Questions about the global perception of U.S. military retrenchment, in Asia or anywhere else, get Hagel agitated.

"We've got over 330,000 personnel deployed in the Asia-Pacific, 180 ships, over 2,000 aircraft," he said.

"I'm always a bit amused, perplexed, by people who say we're retreating from the world," he continued. "Where are we retreating from?"

On the big, long-term picture, Obama and Hagel are right: Asia and the Pacific are the most important region for U.S. interests. And China is a dynamic, rising power -- unlike Russia, which may be dangerous but isn't growing in most other ways.

"That's the big one," Hagel said. "We've really got to pay attention to that relationship and get it right."

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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©2014 Los Angeles Times

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PHOTO of Doyle McManus available from the "Columnist Mugs" section of MCT Direct.

ARCHIVE CARICATURE on MCT Direct (from MCT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): Chuck Hagel

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