After a contentious confirmation process, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is making the rounds in his new job.
By meeting with Israeli officials and visiting Afghanistan, Secretary Hagel is touching on America’s traditional zones of influence. However, he is also overseeing a steady shift from focusing on the Middle East to East Asia. As the drawdown in Afghanistan begins, he must now face rising challenges in the East. Tweet it: Tweet
Hagel met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to discuss US-Israeli relations and the mutual concern about Iran. There, Hagel promised that the U.S. “is committed to working with members of Congress to ensure that there is no interruption of funding” for Israel’s “rocket and missile defense systems.”
Hagel also reassured Barak that President Obama was committed to Israel’s security and the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Later, at the annual meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, Barak showered Hagel with praise, thanking the secretary of defense for his “resolute backing of Israel.”
The unique aspect of Hagel’s meeting with the Israeli defense minister is how it is likely designed to mend fences in the American-Jewish community. Assailed as “anti-Israel” during his confirmation hearing and harangued as such by private groups invested in his defeat, Hagel is continuing to assure Israel’s military support.
He has also largely abandoned his previous rhetoric about a “bloated” Pentagon and has adopted the White House’s characterization of the sequester, saying he is “concerned . . . about the impact on readiness these cuts will have across our force.” Tweet quote: Tweet
In a sign of the shift that is occurring, Hagel has also reached out to his Japanese counterpart, Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera. This comes at a time when China’s legislative body issued a broadside directed at Japan regarding the island dispute between the two nations.
The statement read, in part, that any unintended clash between patrol boats or planes operating in the disputed area would be the responsibility of Japan.
With a new nationalist prime minister, Shinzo Abe, many watchful eyes are on Japan to see if an unplanned incident between Japan and China will spark a larger conflict. With Japan prohibited from engaging in any non-defensive military action by its post-WWII constitution, the burden would likely fall on the U.S.
Elsewhere in East Asia, Hagel also oversees the American relationship with South Korea at a crucial time.
Facing tightened sanctions in the North, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea rebutted by announcing the 1953 armistice as “null and void.”
The South threatened that if the North attacked with a nuclear weapon, Kim Jong-Un would be “erased from the earth.”
In a widely-disseminated statement, General Kang Pyo-yong, the vice defense minister of North Korea, responded, “If we push the button, [nuclear weapons] will blast off and their barrage will turn . . . Washington into a sea of fire.”
This is not the first instance of North-South tension since the end of the Korean War. As recently as 2010, the militaries of the North and South exchanged naval gunfire.
Regarding what these tensions mean for the U.S, veteran foreign affairs writer Doug Bandow asked, “With what forces would [Chief Operations Officer] General Kim [Yong-hyun] attack?”
“Seoul has a large and capable military which contains units that could ‘forcefully and decisively strike’ against the North’s presumably well-defended ‘command leadership.’ However . . . six decades after the Korean War ended, [South Korean officials] say American troops are still needed.”
While on his surprise visit to Afghanistan, Hagel responded to questions about a burgeoning Korean conflict:
“The United States of America and our allies are prepared to deal with any threat, and any reality that occurs in the world.” Tweet quote: Tweet
Secretary Hagel has a challenging assignment. Defense cuts are beginning and America is experiencing a changing role in the world. Commitments in the Middle East are presumably winding down only to take an increased role in East Asia.
How he handles and responds to these disputes will likely be a clue to how the U.S adjusts to these changing commitments in the long term.