• Mon
  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 3:42am

US defence secretary Chuck Hagel's straight talking in Asia gets results

Pentagon chief's straight talking in East Asia probably made military miscalculation less likely, but differences with China won't go away

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 6:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 10:27am

As Chuck Hagel tucked into his kung pao chicken with PLA officers in Beijing last week, the US defence secretary had much to chew over from his tour of Asia.

After being treated to a rare inspection of China's first and only aircraft carrier, the US defence secretary heard sharp words from his Chinese counterpart on Taiwan and Japan - a spicy exchange that broke from the traditional bland pronouncements of previous such visits.

As the first Vietnam war veteran to have run the Pentagon and a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq, Hagel knows the importance of exhausting diplomatic options before resorting to military action. His 10-day trip proved to be no small test of his skills and resolve to do so.

The shift of focus from the strife-torn Middle East to Asia was apparent in Hagel's visit, which analysts saw as paving the way for US President Barack Obama's tour of the region this month.

The US administration is seeking to pull off an almost impossible balancing act: reassuring countries in the region that the United States' "pivot" to Asia, a policy long seen in China as a move to contain its rise, is proceeding while at the same time seeking military co-operation with Beijing.

And while Hagel's public exchanges with the Chinese top brass were unusually frank, analysts said the straight-talking maverick had taken a big step towards preventing military miscalculation, with its potential to escalate into conflict, by engaging in a more direct and honest discussion of the two countries' differences and clashes of interest.

"Sweeping our differences under the rug and pretending they don't exist is not only unwise but dangerous," said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington DC.

"It's important to engage and narrow differences on where we can and where we can't to ensure we don't have miscalculation on various issues."

Despite US military budget cuts, Hagel spared no effort during his trip to tell East Asian nations the region remains a priority for Washington and that the US will not shy away from confronting China.

In Japan, he urged China to respect its neighbours and drew a direct comparison between Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and the territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over islands in the East China Sea.

Stressing the importance of US "treaty obligations" to American allies, he told US and Japanese forces at Yokota air base, was one of the goals of his trip. "We are serious about that," he said.

But Washington says it takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands, called the Senkakus by Japan and the Diaoyus by China, although it recognises Tokyo's right to administer them.

US officials have publicly stated that the islands are covered by the US Japan security treaty, a point Hagel also stressed during his meetings in Beijing.

Some in Japan fear its biggest ally may not be able or willing to come to its defence in the event of military conflict over the islands.

During his meeting with Chinese defence minister Chang Wanquan in Beijing, Hagel reiterated US objections to China's air-defence identification zone over the disputed sea. The declaration of the air zone in November was condemned in the region, as it came without consultation and many see its overlap with Japan and South Korea's air defence zones as confrontational.

Equally worried are the Southeast Asian nations contesting claims with China to islands in the South China Sea. At a three-day meeting in Hawaii, the first stop on his trip, Hagel told his counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that the US was increasingly concerned about instability in the South China Sea.

Although he did not mention China by name, Hagel said all countries concerned should make their cases based on international law, an indirect reference to China's vaguely defined claim to about 90 per cent of the sea. Other claimants, and more recently the US, have questioned if that claim is consistent with international law.

In a rare public rebuttal, Chinese leaders made sure their discontent was heard.

"The Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks," Fan Changlong , a deputy chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, told Hagel at a meeting, referring to his statements in Japan and Hawaii.

Chang made it known that the Chinese armed forces were "ready to assemble at the first call" and were "capable of winning". The US should "stay vigilant" over Japan, he added.

Chang also urged Washington to block a Congressional bill that reaffirms the US commitment to Taiwan and calls for continued arms sales to the island.

Both sides describe the exchanges as candid and constructive. And the trip was not without positive signs. Hagel became the first foreign leader to get aboard the Chinese aircraft carrier, a potent symbol of the country's rising military might. The two militaries also pledged to enhance co-operation. Communication lines will be set up to establish a notification mechanism for navy and air-force activities at sea in an effort to avoid the risk of miscalculation.

Being more honest could help to prevent miscalculation, but some Chinese observers warn that structural problems and fundamental mistrust remain major hurdles.

"It's a good thing the two countries are talking things out, but this will not change the course that will see a rising nation clashing with the existing hegemony," said Ni Lexiong , director of a defence policy centre at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

Hagel's visit also had its lighter moments.

The former radio-show host made some off-the-cuff comments during a lunch at an officers' school in Beijing.

"Is that a hotdog?" the 67-year-old asked, pointing to a sausage on the lunch plate of a young soldier sitting next to him at the school's canteen.

"You are still growing, I am not," he told the young man as he savoured his kung pao and dumplings.

In his last stop, in Mongolia, Hagel was given a horse as a gift by his counterpart, Bat-Erdene Dashdemberel, which he opted to leave behind.

"You be good while I am gone," Hagel told the horse, which he named Shamrock.

In Ulan Bator, Hagel thanked Mongolia for sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. While serving as a Republican senator, Hagel drew criticism from his own party for his strident opposition to the war in Iraq. A recipient of two Purple Hearts, one for saving his brother, his nomination as Pentagon chief was opposed by some in his own party.

Although his appointment came only after a nomination stalled in the Senate by an unprecedented filibuster, and a confirmation margin of 58 votes to 41 that was the lowest for any successful cabinet nominee since 2007, some consider Hagel a fitting figure to run the Defence Department as the US looks set to push for a speedier withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan.

More substantive measures were expected to be announced during Obama's visit to back up the rhetoric of reassurance, said Robert Sutter, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

Bonnie Glaser's name was misspelled in a previous version of this article, which also erroneously identified her as being based in Jakarta. It should be Washington DC.  


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What an absurd statement. Hagel was a well respected senator from Nebraska who was known for speaking his mind and had no problem disagreeing with the Bush Administration. What Obama did, to his credit, with his second term was to seek to bring more professional, less ideological people to the cabinet. Hagel has been in combat, he has run a successful business, been a leader in the senate and finally we have someone who is willing to tell the Chinese what they don't want to hear. Sorry that the masters in Beijing don't like that other nations have sovereignty too. You seem to have the clown bit covered very well.
IMO, I don't see much results in Hagel's visit as claimed. I would agree if Hagel was able to convince Abe to come to the negotiation table with Xi on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute.
Instead, I see this is more of "Sweeping our differences under the rug" as Bonnie Glasser said.
"In Japan, he urged China to respect its neighbours and drew a direct comparison between Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and the territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over islands in the East China Sea."
If that is the case, he is sending a message to China that US will not be sending troops in case of conflict since all US and its allies did up to now was a few "slap on the wrists" financially and lots of rhetoric.
Also, IMO, the Diaoyu/Senkaku and the Ukraine/Crimea conflicts are apples and oranges.
US created the Diaoyu/Senkaku conflict by giving the administrative rights of the islands to Japan instead of China or Taiwan when they were too weak to counter US's decision despite Japan was the aggressor and lost the war. Also, the islands are uninhabited.
In the case of Crimea, there are almost 2 million people living there and approximately 60 percent are Russians.
Japan was the axis ally of adolph Hitler, not China. If you want to draw parallels, then Japan is the one we should be worried about.
What is your point? That Abe is trying to "relive it's glory past" by re-armament?
Is that why he is trying to control NHK to be his mouthpiece? Is this democracy?
US is pivoting to Asia, but Abe is pivoting to it's past and that is worrisome.
The fault of the recent conflict lies with Japan, not China.
Japan and China (during Deng's time) agreed to push the islands dispute to a later date but the far right Ishihara wanted to purchase the islands and Noda nationalized the islands. Abe, the nationalistic revisionist refuse to negotiate. How can you be so sure that "China will not negotiate unless the Japanese cede control of the islands to China"?
Abe is the one closing the door. Not China.
Why push Japan to come to the negotiating table when the Chinese have made abundantly clear that they will not negotiate unless the Japanese cede control of the Islands to China: I will negotiate with you only if you agree to give me what I want now. That is the same foolish position that Beijing takes as to the Philippines and its territory over which China now makes claims: Agree that my rights are paramount and I will consider speaking with you. As to US troops being deployed if China invades another nation in the region, the masters in China don't want to see it but it is a real possibility. Let's face facts. There are 30,000 or so troops in Korea and a parallel number in Japan with full land, air and sea capabilities. The Philippines is reopening its bases to US military and Australia has a rapid response force in Darwin, not to mention the boomers passing to the south of Indonesia and the carrier strike forces deployed throughout the seas. China does not like the US saying it will support other nations against Chinese aggression but so it goes. Crimea is a very different situation and it is not over by a long shot.
Let's face facts. If you have a totalitarian state with centralized power and money, you can build a pretty good military machine pretty quickly. Compare Nazi Germany to the current situation. Germany was crushed post WWI by massive reparations and much of its industrial might was dismantled and taken away. It was forbidden to have an army post 1919. It suffered massively from inflation and lack of basic staples into the world wide Great Depression. But by 1939 it had the strongest military force in the world, with air, sea and land capabilities and machinery that was far more advanced than any other nation had. The Nazis essentially built that machine in about 10 years of power. How? By having a centralized power base and governance system that was tied to an oppressive military/police structure that crushed dissent and controlled information and a pervasive propaganda machine to ensure that the views of the Nazi Party were the only views that the people ever heard. Sound familiar? What did the Nazis pursue first? Recovery as they saw it of lands that they claimed were theirs historically, such as the Sudetenland in the Czech region, and areas of Poland. And now they had a great big Army to support same. Some nations joined the Germans, like Austria and Hungary (German allies in WWI) and others sought alliances to counter a growing, hungry wolf. After only 3 years of war, Germany controlled the largest empire since Ghengis Khan. Food for thought.
And one other interesting parallel: an imagined pure lineage of Germanic/Aryan blood with one language, and a parallel desire to obliterate any perceived other national or cultural attributes. So when one thinks about the threat from the north, it is not like there is not a historical parallel that occurred only 5 or so generations ago and is remembered by those who are still alive.
Why write an article if you are going to say so little. Hagel is widely understood as a clownish figure in the U.S. who had one of the embarrassingly bad confirmation hearings ever for a U.S. cabinet member that exposed that he is not only off-the-wall but also not capable of defending himself. He's 60 something and seemingly going on 90 something - at best. That the Obama administration didn't withdraw his nomination shows how incompetent the Obama 2nd term is. All of the "grown ups", Bill Daley, Bert Emmanuel are long gone and what the Obama administration is left with is a collection of the "worst and least bright" in addition to clinging to a now thoroughly failed collection of discredited ideological stances.


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