HONOLULU — Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are providing common ground for Southeast Asian defense ministers meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Honolulu.
Hagel, who arrived Tuesday afternoon at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, will be in Hawaii for three days as the U.S. for the first time hosts a meeting of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) defense ministers.
Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or HA/DR, is receiving renewed emphasis in the Pacific following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as the United States continues its "pivot" to the region.
"The (Defense Department) has tremendous capacity in this area, and I think the recent typhoon in the Philippines was a good example of that," Hagel said Tuesday in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Through late November the U.S. military delivered more than 4 million pounds of relief supplies and equipment, logged 2,400 flight hours and airlifted nearly 20,000 people after the supertyphoon made landfall in the Philippines on Nov. 8.
"And we will build on those (HA/DR) capacities and our partnerships, so yes, that will be a significant part of the conversation" during the ASEAN conference, Hagel said.
Hagel said the plan is to "go a little deeper into not just our capacity and our partnering capacity," but also climate change with a meeting Wednesday at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center on Ford Island.
"I think the whole climate issue and weather pattern issue and all that is related to disasters and how do you deal with them and how do you work through these big challenges when it comes to the relief on the humanitarian side, and how do we protect the people," Hagel said.
ASEAN's 10 Southeast Asian member nations are sending representatives to the conference. The bloc, created in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, later grew to include Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia.
The Pentagon said President Barack Obama made it clear that the United States must not only re-balance toward the Asia-Pacific; it must also re-balance within the Asia-Pacific "to reflect Southeast Asia's emerging prominence and importance."
Hagel said HA/DR is "something all of us can agree on" as a "unifying, coordinating and consistent connecting point for all of us."
The $1.3 billion amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage, with MV-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys aboard, was brought out from San Diego for the ASEAN conference to demonstrate the dual use of the warship for HA/DR as well as combat.
The Anchorage has command and control capability as well as space for the aircraft, landing craft and Marines.
Ospreys can carry troops and equipment. They take off like helicopters and rotate big propellor blades forward to achieve traditional aircraft speeds.
"Obviously, what the Osprey does (is) give us versatility and flexibility in these very difficult situations," Hagel said.
The ASEAN defense ministers also are expected to discuss with Hagel growing tensions in the South China Sea and calls for maritime "rules of the road."
Hagel said one of the things he hopes the representatives walk away with "is a very clear, continued understanding of the U.S. commitments to Asia-Pacific and the re-balance and the security and economic stability and prosperity of this region."
"We want to, all of us, assure maritime security and freedom and navigation of the seas and the skies and cyber," Hagel said. "We want disputes resolved peacefully."
Hagel downplayed questioning by some defense officials as to whether the military re-balance to the region is real in a time of budget cutbacks.
"I don't think (the) facts bear out anything but one conclusion, and clear observation is that the platforms we have, our most sophisticated, our newest initiatives, are clearly in the Pacific and Asia," Hagel said.
That includes littoral combat ships rotating through Singapore, Marines rotating through Australia, negotiations for more rotational forces in the Philippines, a commitment for a new radar in Japan and a buildup on Guam, he said.
From Hawaii, Hagel will travel to Japan, make his first trip to China as defense secretary and also visit Mongolia.