Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei – On the first day of Southeast Asia’s most important annual defense ministerial conference, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met here with his counterparts from the 10 nations that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
On the sidelines, the secretary also took time for bilateral talks on the region and broader topics with his counterparts from Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Brunei, Burma and China. The ASEAN member states are Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. During lunch on August 28 and a meeting afterward, Hagel and the members discussed the need to advance practical cooperation to build trust and lower tensions throughout the region.
When Hagel was in Singapore in June attending the Shangri-La Dialogue meeting, he invited the ASEAN defense ministers to Hawaii in 2014 for an informal meeting — their first in the United States. During the luncheon, all 10 ministers accepted his invitation.
“I’m obviously very pleased about that,” Hagel said, adding, “It will give us another opportunity to strengthen and deepen the relationship with our partners here in the Asia-Pacific.”
Hagel noted the need to continue progress toward peacefully resolving territorial disputes, and committed to continued US support for ASEAN, including its Defense Ministers’ Meeting, or ADMM, as a strong organization for achieving shared goals and upholding the common good, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said.
During the meeting, a senior defense official said, each country expressed strong support for the steady US presence in the Asia-Pacific and viewed US engagement in the region as a key contributor to peace and stability.
The representatives also expressed their support for continued active engagement by the United States in this part of the world, he said. “They see it’s essential for a peaceful stable environment and a prosperous environment around them,” the official added.
Brunei has served as chair of ASEAN this year, and yesterday Hagel met with Brunei’s energy minister, Pehin Dato Seri Setia Awang Haji Mohammad Yasmin. Little said the secretary recognized Brunei’s strong leadership as ASEAN chair and organizer of the June joint exercise involving humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and military medicine. Burma will take over next year as ASEAN chair.
Tomorrow morning (Aug. 29), Hagel will attend the ADMM-Plus ministerial conference, hosted by Yasmin and made up of the 10 ASEAN defense ministers and eight dialogue partners: the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, New Zealand and Russia.
Senior defense officials said that Hagel’s bilateral meetings were positive and productive.
During a meeting this morning with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, Hagel was pleased to accept an invitation to visit Japan next year, and the two militaries agreed to establish a cyber defense effort together, a senior defense official said today.
“There’s a recognition that with both state and non-state actors, cyber threats and thefts of intellectual property as well as penetrations of government and industrial networks are an increasing concern and there’s a need to cooperate and share information to deal with that,” the official said.
In other discussions, Little said, Hagel and Onodera exchanged views on the regional security environment, including North Korea’s continued nuclear and ballistic missile developments.
Hagel said he looks forward during a visit to Tokyo in October to continued bilateral discussion on strengthening the alliance, and both men reaffirmed the importance of the US-Japan alliance in defending Japan and contributing to regional peace and security, Little added.
Both also expressed interest in continuing to modernize the alliance by enhancing their already strong security cooperation initiatives, the press secretary said.
“The US very much appreciates Japan’s important role as a contributor to peace and stability in this region and the rest of the world,” Hagel told Onodera through a translator as the meeting began, “and I’m very much looking forward to my upcoming visit to Japan.”
Hagel also met today with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, thanking him for his friendship and reaffirming the United States’ enduring defense and extended deterrence commitments to South Korea. Little said Hagel told Kim it is a mutual duty to remain vigilant during this time of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula.
The leaders discussed the importance of recent UN Security Council resolutions designed to limit North Korea’s progress on nuclear and missile programs, the press secretary said. The Defense Department is focused on fulfilling security commitments but Hagel said diplomatic efforts are fundamental to encouraging North Korea to pursue the path of peace, Little added.
Hagel will travel to the South Korean capital of Seoul in October to attend the annual Security Consultive Meeting, a senior defense official said, and as part of that trip will be able to help commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War with the country’s leaders.
Later today, during bilateral discussions with Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Phung Quang Thanh, Hagel accepted with appreciation an invitation to visit Vietnam in 2014 and through a translator wished the general a happy National Day, which the Vietnamese celebrate on Sept. 2.
Hagel expressed his commitment to growing the bilateral defense relationship with Vietnam and working on issues like maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and recovering the remains of US personnel missing in action, Little said.
The secretary also conveyed his commitment to continuing to implement the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding for Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation, the press secretary added.
On regional security, Little said, the leaders noted the importance of peacefully resolving disputes in the South China Sea and welcomed steps to develop an ASEAN Code of Conduct to guide that process.
Hagel also met briefly with Burma’s defense minister, Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin, expressing his support for Burma’s upcoming ASEAN chairmanship and telling the general that the department looks forward to supporting their efforts on ASEAN defense events next year.
A senior defense official noted that such a bilateral meeting at the defense minister level had not happened in more than 20 years with Burma, and that the meeting today is a “a sign of changes and the Obama administration’s very positive engagement with the Burmese, [as well as] recognition of the reforms that have been underway in that country and progress that’s being made on human rights.”
Hagel discussed with the Burmese defense minister the importance of continued progress on reform and said it’s also important that Burma sever military ties to North Korea, Little said.
Hagel applauded the Burmese military’s support for the government’s democratic reform efforts and encouraged that the reforms continue.
Hagel also held a bilateral meeting with representatives from China.