WASHINGTON – U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is making arrangements to visit Japan and China in early April and may squeeze in a trip to South Korea, sources said Saturday.
His Asian tour will come amid a deteriorating security environment in Northeast Asia, with China’s new air defense identification zone over the East China Sea overlapping Japanese airspace over the Senkaku Islands, and lingering uncertainties over the situation in North Korea.
Hagel is expected to reaffirm America’s ties with Japan and South Korea and call for restraint by China.
In its Quadrennial Defense Review announced Tuesday, Washington made it clear that it will adhere to its “pivot” strategy of shifting focus to the Asia-Pacific region.
In view of the strategy, the U.S. defense chief’s tour is also apparently aimed at coordinating security policy ahead of President Barack Obama’s planned visit to Japan and South Korea later in April.
Hagel is already set to host a meeting with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Hawaii from April 1 to 3.
He is likely to visit Japan for three days before heading for Seoul and Beijing, the sources said.
In Japan, Hagel is expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to explain the U.S. defense review and discuss plans to revise the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines.
The U.S. government plans to compile an interim report on the revision by summer and a final draft by the end of this year that will reflect the Abe administration’s goals for changing the government’s interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution. The semantic tactic is aimed at allowing Japan to engage in collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of an ally under military attack.
Japanese officials may brief Hagel on the prospects for achieving the controversial change.
Also on the agenda will likely be ongoing efforts to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma further north in Okinawa Prefecture, and the situation unfolding in Ukraine.
Hagel intends to visit Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture, where the U.S. Air Force’s Global Hawk, an unmanned surveillance aircraft, is to be provisionally deployed. He may also visit Okinawa.
Hagel will also visit China for the first time since he took office in February 2013. The focus of those talks will likely be the Senkakus, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, and the promotion of dialogue between the two countries’ defense authorities.
Amid lingering concerns in Washington about any move by Beijing to declare another ADIZ over the South China Sea, Hagel is likely to urge China to exercise self-restraint.
In talks with Seoul, the main agenda items are expected to include the situation in North Korea and the transfer of control over wartime operations from U.S. forces stationed in the country to the South Korean military.