By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md., April 1, 2014 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel begins his fourth official trip to the Asia-Pacific region today with a stop in Honolulu for the first U.S.-hosted U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum, an informal meeting of the defense ministers of 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
ASEAN member nations are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
During a Pentagon briefing for reporters yesterday afternoon, Hagel said the important 10-day trip will include visits with government and defense leaders in Japan, China and Mongolia, and will reemphasize the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and the nation’s strategic interests there.
The trip, he added, will “make very clear of our commitment to our allies in the Asia-Pacific and … give us an opportunity to talk specifically about some of the issues we're dealing with in the Asia-Pacific -- the security challenges, the issues that are of concern to peace, prosperity and the future of that region.”
Hagel said the United States has been a Pacific power for many years and U.S. government and defense leaders look forward to continuing to build those relationships and partnerships in the region in the years ahead.
“Security and stability are key anchors for prosperity and economic development,” the secretary said, “and we rebalance to the Asia-Pacific with all of those different responsibilities and dimensions as our focus.”
Tremendous progress made in the Asia-Pacific over the last few years has been the result of security, Hagel said. Issues and questions remain, he added, but the region has prospered because its citizens have worked through many of their differences peacefully.
“ASEAN is a critically important part of that,” he said, “so [it’s important] to have the 10 ASEAN defense ministers in Hawaii, on United States soil, and I'm looking forward to that meeting with my ASEAN counterparts.”
The United States showed support for the formal ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting, or ADMM, when then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates first attended an ADMM-Plus meeting in 2010.
This meeting includes defense ministers from the 10 ASEAN member nations and those from eight nations ASEAN calls Dialog Partners -- Australia, China, Japan, India, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States.
The ADMM-Plus is an action-oriented group that focuses on tangible initiatives in which the 18 nations’ military and defense institutions work together in practical ways that help build trust, cohesion and cooperation.
Also at the Pentagon yesterday, senior defense officials discussed the secretary’s upcoming 2.5-day informal meeting with the ASEAN defense ministers in Honolulu and the opportunities such a forum would hold for each attendee.
“ASEAN is an important affirmative investment for the United States,” a defense official said. “We view ASEAN as a central and strategic player in the region, and this trip, and this particular informal meeting we're hosting in Hawaii, is an opportunity to express that.”
The official added, “It's a symbolic of the investments we're making as we work to build toward a stronger regional security architecture overall.”
The ASEAN Defense Forum will have three main segments, the senior defense officials said.
First is a humanitarian-assistance and disaster-response roundtable co-chaired by Hagel and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah.
The second piece is a series of site visits to military bases and to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tsunami-threat and detection facility.
The third piece is informal dialogue among the ministers on the final day of the forum.
“We have our own experiences with whole-of-government approaches to solving some of these challenges,” a senior defense official said, “and it's going to require that we build strong partnerships not just between militaries but among civilian agencies and across the militaries with the private sector.”
Tragic events like Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines last November, and the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, with 229 people onboard -- both of which attracted massive international assistance -- “are making it more apparent that we have to cooperate, we have to share information and be transparent,” the official added.
U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were on the ground in the Philippines, and the Navy has been helping in the search for the missing Boeing 777-200ER aircraft nearly since the flight went missing on March 8, less than an hour after takeoff.
At the briefing yesterday, Hagel said he’s spoken twice in the past week to Malaysian Defense and Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. Malaysia, along with Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand, is one of the founding members of ASEAN.
“In both instances, when he's requested assistance, we have provided that assistance,” said Hagel, adding, “Some of the latest equipment being the pinger locator, which I think has left on an Australian ship headed toward this vast area where we all think we may have identified something.”
The secretary added, “We have provided, as far as I know, everything the Malaysian government has requested of us.”
If the transport minister makes additional requests, Hagel said, “I certainly will listen carefully to whatever those are. I think the Australians now are in the lead on this and they've been doing a tremendous job. We're providing everything we can provide, as are other countries.”