Two big military conferences are coming to Hawaii this week and next that highlight the state's strategic importance in the pivot to the Pacific.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will convene the first-ever U.S.-hosted meeting of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) defense ministers Tuesday to Thursday, devoting a substantial amount of time in Hawaii to the Asia region that has grown economically and militarily in importance.
The 10 Southeast Asian member nations are sending representatives who will discuss with Hagel growing tensions in the South China Sea, calls for maritime "rules of the road," and the need to cooperate on humanitarian assistance in the disaster-prone Pacific.
ASEAN, created in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, later grew to include Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia.
The defense ministers will tour the USS Anchorage, a $1.3 billion amphibious ship commissioned in May and based in San Diego that can transport Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, Marines and landing craft to trouble spots or humanitarian disasters. They'll also see an Osprey fly, according to the Pentagon.
Increasing the Defense Department's engagement with ASEAN members has been a priority for Hagel, "and working with the Pacific Command commander, Adm. (Samuel) Locklear, the secretary has been very focused on making this upcoming gathering, which is itself historic, a success," Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said Thursday.
From Hawaii, Hagel will travel to Japan, make his first trip to China as defense secretary, and also visit Mongolia.
For the second year in a row, meanwhile, the Association of the United States Army, in conjunction with U.S. Army Pacific, headquartered at Fort Shafter, will hold its Land Power in the Pacific conference in Hawaii.
This year's LANPAC will be held April 8-10 at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel.
A total of 27 countries were invited, and army chiefs or representatives from 15 countries have indicated they are coming, U.S. Army Pacific said.
Russia will not attend this year as a result of the Pentagon's decision to "put on hold" military-to-military activities with Russia over its actions in Ukraine, the Army command said.
Nations sending representatives include Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Tonga, Timor Leste, the United Kingdom and Sweden.
China wasn't invited because it's only the second iteration of LANPAC, and "we'd like to further develop this conference a bit more before China attends," said Jim Guzior, a spokesman for U.S. Army Pacific.
"We're looking at multiple avenues to work with China," Guzior added. "LANPAC will certainly be a vehicle to enhance that relationship."
Last year's LANPAC deepened relations among the U.S. Army, regional allies and partners, and "joint land partners" including Marine Corps Forces Pacific and Special Operations Command Pacific, Guzior said.
"This was evident as we witnessed the maturity of these relationships during the response to the typhoon that hit the Philippines" in improved speed in response and recovery efforts, he said.
The reason both conferences are being held in Hawaii is because of the state's forward presence in the Pacific — the focus of the so-called "pivot" or "rebalance" — and co-location of major U.S. military commands here.
Hagel is making his fourth trip to Asia in a year, "further evidence of the secretary's personal commitment to the president's rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region," the Pentagon's Kirby said.
"We are a Pacific nation, and Hawaii has been critical to our ability to operate in the Pacific, and it will be essential going forward," said Carl Woog, the Pentagon's assistant press secretary. "So it was an appropriate setting for the first time that ASEAN defense ministers have come to the United States, for them to come to Hawaii."
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said President Barack Obama has met at the summit level with ASEAN prime ministers on a number of occasions.
The meeting in Hawaii reflects the growing importance of the ASEAN defense ministerial meetings and those of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus, which bring together the 10 nations and eight other countries as "dialogue partners" — Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, India, the United States and Russia, Cossa said.
"First of all, the symbolism is very important," Cossa said. "The fact that we're inviting all the defense ministers to Hawaii — and they are coming — shows a desire of both us and them to tighten not only political ties with ASEAN, but defense and security ties as well."
Hagel attended the 18-nation meeting in Brunei in August.
Hagel will host the defense ministers Tuesday night and meet with them Wednesday at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center on Ford Island.
Discussions there will be focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief led by Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"The focus there is on what the United States and our ASEAN partners can do together to be better positioned for HA/DR missions," reflecting on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the recent loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Woog said at the Pentagon.
Woog said the NOAA center is appropriate given climate change is likely to play a role in future disasters.
Locklear, the Pacific Command commander, will host the defense ministers for lunch, and then the group will tour the USS Anchorage at Pearl Harbor and see an Osprey fly, Woog said.
The ASEAN group will get a sense of the Anchorage's ability to help in a disaster, but Cossa also said the technology will demonstrate "that we're still the most powerful military in the world."
At Hickam, C-17 cargo and P-3 Orion surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft capabilities will be on display. That night will include dinner at the Bishop Museum, with Gov. Neil Abercrombie expected to attend.
On Thursday, the final day of the conference, discussions will focus on regional security issues, maritime "rules of the road," maritime security, and issues in the South China Sea, Woog said.
Cossa said the Asia-Pacific defense meetings in Hawaii — along with Rim of the Pacific war games this summer, in which 22 or more nations are expected to participate — send several messages.
One is that "we're actually serious about the pivot or rebalance" and while defense officials are "cutting corners here and trying to save dollars on the sidelines, they were serious when they said they were going to provide the necessary resources for the Pacific Command to do what it needs to do," Cossa said.
The upcoming conferences and RIMPAC demonstrate that, Cossa maintains.
"So it shows that we're serious about defense cooperation, we're serious about maintaining a presence and being a primary factor in Asia," Cossa said. "Hawaii, of course, is where all of the commands, not just Pacific Command, but also all the component commands are. So obviously Hawaii is a central place for that reason alone, and this just sort of underscores that Hawaii continues to be a primary location for U.S. power projection, if you will, into Asia."