US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (left) speaks Aug. 28 as Brunei Minister of Energy Awang Mohammad Yasmin Haji Umar listens at the prime minister's office ahead of a meeting with ASEAN Defense Ministers in Bandar Seri Begawanon. (Dean Kassim / AFP)
JERUDONG, BRUNEI — Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel assured Asian nations Wednesday that Washington’s long-term “pivot” to the region was not just rhetoric even as an escalating confrontation with Syria dominates his immediate crisis planning.
US officials said Hagel also called for restraint in the disputed South China Sea at a gathering in Brunei of defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China and elsewhere.
The two-day ASEAN meeting is the main event of Hagel’s week-long trip to Southeast Asia, but the mounting crisis between Syria and the West has repeatedly intruded.
Hagel told the BBC that American forces were in place and “ready to go” if ordered by President Barack Obama to punish the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
Syria came up in a meeting between Hagel and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin, with both men voicing grave concern about the use of chemical weapons, a US defense official told reporters.
Hagel told Kim that gross violations of international law cannot go “unanswered,” said the official.
The Syria showdown is the latest Middle East crisis to complicate Washington’s stated “pivot” toward Asia.
The Obama administration wants to bolster trade and security ties with vibrant Asia-Pacific economies after a decade preoccupied by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Briefing reporters, Hagel said he had told Japan’s defense minister, Itsuno Onodera, that the US alliance with Japan is “one of the important keys to our rebalance.”
In the BBC interview broadcast Wednesday, Hagel insisted the United States was serious about the pivot, saying “this area of the world is going to continue to be a significant part of redefining international affairs.”
Despite Pentagon budget cuts, US officials say Washington will stick by plans to provide more military aid to countries anxious about China’s growing muscle.
Tensions have risen over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, with ASEAN countries accusing Beijing of taking an aggressive stance.
Southeast Asian governments have called for a code of conduct to prevent conflict over the rival claims, a proposal endorsed by the United States.
China has been accused of dragging its feet on the issue but this year promised to enter into future talks with ASEAN.
China also has feuded with Japan over rival claims in the East China Sea.
“This is not about encircling China or anybody else,” Hagel said in the BBC interview. “This is about economic interests, it’s about the world, it’s about prosperity, stability and security.”
The Pentagon chief was scheduled Wednesday to meet China’s defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, on the sidelines in Brunei, after having hosted him in Washington earlier this month.
Hagel acknowledged “differences” with China but said, “the only way to get through those differences is to work through them.”
In his talks with the Japanese and South Korean defense ministers, Hagel discussed the North Korean nuclear threat, calling for vigilance as well as diplomacy, officials said.
“While the Department of Defense remains focused on fulfilling security commitments, Secretary Hagel stated that diplomatic efforts are fundamental to encouraging North Korea to pursue the path of peace,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
North Korean saber-rattling has eased in recent days, but Hagel said the regime must take steps to abandon its nuclear weapons and allow in UN inspectors.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, met his Vietnamese counterpart on Wednesday and accepted an invitation to visit the country in 2014, officials said.
He also was due to meet Myanmar’s defense minister in Brunei before heading to the Philippines on Thursday to wrap up his trip.
The ASEAN gathering brings together defense ministers from 10 Southeast Asian countries plus Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.