Doyle McManus

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 US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel headed this week? To Hawaii - for a meeting with defence ministers from Asia, the region the Barack 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.”

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 towards Europe again. That will not happen, Hagel insists. The US will stand by its Nato allies in any confrontation with Russia, he said, but there is no plan to increase American troop strength in Europe. The White House has ballyhooed its actions in ordering US military units to bolster Eastern Europe after Russia’s seizure of Crimea. But in fact, they have not 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.

Avoid escalating the conflict

US 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 US is staying out.

However, it also reflects the Obama administration’s larger map: Eastern Europe is not among the president’s top priorities. Asia still is.

Ironically, though, after spending much of his first year as Secretary of Defence, reassuring European and Middle Eastern leaders that a “rebalance” towards Asia did not mean neglect for other parts of the world, Hagel now finds himself reassuring Asians that the “pivot” is still on. That is partly because of scepticism from some of his own people. Last month, the Assistant Secretary of Defence, Katrina McFarland, told a conference that budget cuts meant the “pivot” was being reconsidered “because, candidly, it can’t happen”.

(She retracted the comment, presumably under pressure from her bosses, later the same day.) And last week, the commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told Congress that he did not have enough submarines or landing craft to carry out his missions adequately.

Questions about the global perception of US 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. “It’s the largest combatant command we have in the world. I’m always a bit amused, perplexed, by people who say we’re retreating from the world,” he continued. “Where are we retreating from?” And he ticks off all the areas where US military forces are active - not only East Asia and Europe and Afghanistan but the Middle East and Africa as well.

So yes, the budget plan Hagel sent to Congress last month calls for a smaller Army, a smaller Marine Corps, fewer planes and fewer ships than planned. But the defence secretary says that should not matter.

The answer, he said, is to do more with less, both by helping friendly countries improve their own defences and by relying on quality instead of quantity. The troops and ships and aircraft the US deploys may be fewer than before, but they are more capable than their predecessors.

‘That’s the big one’

On the big, long-term picture, Obama and Hagel are right: Asia and the Pacific are the most important regions for US interests. In trade, for example, US exports to Asia are significantly larger than exports to Europe. Europe has Nato to keep the peace; Asia, without an equivalent regional organisation, still relies on the US Navy. And China is a dynamic, rising power - unlike Russia, which may be dangerous but is not 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.”

But other crises and other regions keep getting in the way, as do the fiscal pressures that are pushing the defence budget downward with support from Republicans as well as Democrats.

Hagel, a former Republican senator and Vietnam War Army sergeant, got his turn as Defence Secretary at an unenviable moment: A period of shrinking budgets, when tough choices among priorities cannot be dodged.

Last month, that meant convincing leaders in Asia that the US really can do more with less and that it will not be distracted from its focus on the Pacific by hard-power crises in Ukraine or anywhere else.– Los Angeles Times