US de­fense sec­re­tary sets out on Asia mission


Is­lamic ex­trem­ists grab parts of Iraq and Syria. Ye­men slides into civil war. Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram strains U.S. re­la­tions with Is­rael. Ukraine fights Rus­sian­backed sep­a­ratists.

At a time of cri­sis across the Mid­dle East and be­yond, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to keep its fo­cus on a widely ad­ver­tised shift to Asia.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has pur­sued the strat­egy since 2011, ar­gu­ing that no re­gion is more im­por­tant to the United States’ long-term in­ter­ests, par­tic­u­larly as the rise of China brings con­cern in other Asian cap­i­tals.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter will visit Ja­pan and South Korea this week, part of a se­ries of planned trips to the re­gion dur­ing his first year as Pen­tagon chief. He will visit In­dia and at­tend an in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity con­fer­ence in Sin­ga­pore in May, and he may visit China later in the year.

Be­fore he be­came de­fense sec- re­tary in Fe­bru­ary, Carter was a sup­porter of what the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion calls its “re­bal­ance” to Asia. That term meant to re­but the im­pli­ca­tion that by giv­ing more at­ten­tion to Asia, Wash­ing­ton is piv­ot­ing away from its tra­di­tional al­lies in Europe and its ex­ten­sive com­mit­ments in the Mideast.

While serv­ing as the deputy sec­re­tary of de­fense, Carter said in May 2013 that in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism, per­sis­tent Mideast tur­moil, nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion and cy­berthreats would con­tinue to re­quire Pen­tagon at­ten­tion.

“We also see great op­por­tu­ni­ties: Among them, to shift the great weight of the Depart­ment of De­fense, both in­tel­lec­tual and phys­i­cal, that has been de­voted to Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion, where Amer­ica will con­tinue to play its sev­en­decade-old piv­otal sta­bi­liz­ing role into the fu­ture,” Carter said then.

His Tokyo visit be­gin­ning Tues­day is meant in part to smooth the way for Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe’s visit to Wash­ing­ton in late April. That trip will co­in­cide with a his­toric re­work­ing of the guide­lines that gov­ern U. S.- Ja­pan de­fense co­op­er­a­tion in a way in­tended to give Ja­pan’s self-de­fense forces a more ac­tive role in Asian se­cu­rity.

Ja­pan’s post- World War II con­sti­tu­tion lim­its the coun­try’s use of force, but Abe last year ap­proved a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion, and his gov­ern­ment has pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to en­able de­fense changes.

A strate­gic goal shared by Tokyo and Wash­ing­ton is for Ja­pan to par­tic­i­pate in what is known as col­lec­tive self-de­fense, mean­ing that it could come to the aid of an ally un­der attack even if that did not en­tail a di­rect attack on Ja­pan or its own mil­i­tary.

Carter plans to cap his week in Asia with meet­ings with South Korean gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in Seoul and visit U.S. troops.

Among the hottest de­fense top­ics in South Korea is the prospect of de­ploy­ing an ad­vanced U.S. mis­sile de­fense sys­tem, called the Theater High Altitude Area De­fense, or THAAD. The U. S. is thought to want to place the weapon sys­tem in South Korea as a de­fense against North Korean bal­lis­tic mis­siles, but Seoul has balked, in part out of con­cern that China op­poses the move.

U.S. re­la­tions with Ja­pan and South Korea are strong, but the al­liances are some­times tested by dif­fer­ing views on how to han­dle North Korea’s pe­ri­odic provo­ca­tions and China’s rapid mil­i­tary mod­ern­iza­tion.

A new as­sess­ment of the out­look for Asian se­cu­rity, re­leased Thurs­day by the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace, ar­gues that although Asian “hot wars” can­not be ruled out, a con­tin­u­a­tion of the sta­tus quo is a more likely sce­nario over the next five to 25 years. This would likely mean a mix of eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion and in­ten­si­fy­ing mil­i­tary com­pe­ti­tion and ri­valry.

The as­sess­ment was re­quested by the Pen­tagon and is part of a larger study spon­sored by the U.S. Pa­cific Com­mand.

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