October 2, 2013 — SEOUL, South Korea — In the four years since he announced a shift in American foreign policy and defense strategy to counter China’s ambitions in Asia, President Obama has found himself perpetually sidelined from his goals by a series of escalating conflicts in the Middle East and budget crises at home. A long-planned trip to the area in two weeks has been partially wiped out because of the government shutdown.
But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is forging ahead with a military agenda that reflects the Obama administration’s rising security and economic interests in the region and his own passions for Asia. After only seven months in the job, Mr. Hagel is here this week on his third trip as defense secretary to region, including four days in South Korea — the longest stay by an American defense secretary in a generation — and a stop in Japan.
The Asian rebalance, “is a priority,” Mr. Hagel said at a news conference Wednesday here with the South Korean defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin. “You always adjust your resources to match your priorities.”
For Mr. Hagel, whose bruising January confirmation hearing, along with Mr. Obama’s diminished interest in the Pentagon, has left him overshadowed by his former Senate colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, the so-called Asia pivot is both a test and an opportunity.
“With Secretary Kerry spending most of his time and energy on the Middle East, additional responsibility has fallen on Hagel to demonstrate the United States commitment to Asia,” said Ely Ratner, the deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. But, said Mr. Ratner, Mr. Hagel’s efforts are “arguably at the cost of reinforcing perceptions in the region that the rebalancing policy is primarily a military endeavor.”
In Washington, some defense policy experts criticize the policy, saying it amounts to little militarily and is largely a repackaging of existing policies. Further, the policy has antagonized the Chinese, which some experts believe is needless.
Pentagon officials say they are managing the tensions while devoting new resources to a region of increased strategic interest after 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also argue that the “pivot” was meant to be focused on diplomacy and trade, but that theirmilitary might in the region – four littoral combat ships to be deployed in Singapore, increased joint military exercises with Asian and 2,500 Marines in Darwin, Australia – are more visible.
Although Mr. Obama has cut military spending in various parts of the world, it has remained largely unchanged in Asia. By 2020 the Pentagon plans to deploy 60 percent of its warships in the Pacific and 40 percent in the Atlantic, compared with the current 50-50 split.
Mr. Hagel’s personal interest in the region come from his father, a tail gunner who served in Southeast Asia and who died of a heart attack when Mr. Hagel was 16, and from Mr. Hagel’s frequent trips there as president of the U.S.O. and as a business executive. As a Republican senator he brought Asian ambassadors to his home state, Nebraska, to give lectures and visit rodeos, and when he retired, it was the ambassador to South Korea who served as a host for his party.
The greatest American threat in the region remains North Korea, which defense officials say contains the second-largest chemical weapons stockpile in the world and where a volatile government cycles through regular provocations.
“This is probably the only place in the world where we have always a risk of confrontation,” Mr. Hagel said during a visit to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea this week, as North Koreans gawked from a dozen feet away. “So it’s a very important location that we need to pay attention to. There’s no margin of error up here.”
At the D.M.Z., an eerie zone just outside Seoul where guided tours and blue armbands for guests are part of the visit, the two sides communicate via a bullhorn.
Although Mr. Hagel’s visit to South Korea was largely focused on celebrating the country’s 60- year alliance with the United States, he had talks on plans for South Korea to take over by 2015 operational command of its own troops in wartime, which would end a six-decade arrangement giving that authority to an American commander.
Americans have been pressing the issue for years, but the South Korean government remains leery that its military could command its own troops under an attack from North Korea. “They know they need to develop some advance capabilities,” said Gen. J.D. Thurman, who will retire this week as the commander of American forces in South Korea. “But it takes a while to do that.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Hagel will depart for Japan, which is seeking to enhance its own armed forces through changes to its Constitution, a sea change that America is watching with some trepidation. The stop will also include a joint meeting with Mr. Hagel, Mr. Kerry and their Japanese counterparts on defense and diplomatic cooperation.
“Because of what else is going on in the United States and the world,” Mr. Hagel said, referring to recent events in the Middle East, the budget showdown in Congress and diplomatic developments with Iran, " “it’s important that we spend some time out here.”