Hagel on the Asian pivot, China, and cyber espionage

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered two messages this morning to the annual Shangri-La Defense Dialogue in Singapore: he reaffirmed the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot,” or “rebalance” of its focus and resources from the Middle East to Asia, and specifically named China as a source of cyber espionage that threatens US and global security.

Hagel called the Asia-Pacific region the emerging “center of gravity” for world population, global trade, and security. Mandatory spending cuts on the Defense Department will not prevent Washington from allocating new resources and increasing its presence in the region, Hagel said. “The world is undergoing a time of historic transformation, and Asia is at the epicenter of that change,” he said.

Increased partnerships and engagement with countries throughout the Asia-Pacific are designed to encourage inclusive, transnational cooperation on the largest problems facing the region, Hagel said. “Relationships, trust, and confidence are what matter most to all nations,” he said.

Hagel put North Korea on notice that the US will not stand by as it makes nuclear threats, calling on the rogue nation to denuclearize and become a responsible member of the world community; and called for territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas to be settled with restraint, without force, and according to international law.

Hagel also named China as a source of cyber espionage targeting military and government secrets, reflecting Washington’s increasing willingness to directly confront China following reports last week of Chinese hackers stealing secrets from US military systems.

“The United States has expressed our concerns about the growing threat of cyber intrusions, some of which appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military,” Hagel said. “We are determined to work more vigorously with China and other partners to establish international norms of responsible behavior in cyberspace.”

Hagel becomes the latest senior US official to accuse China of cyber attacks, a charge Beijing has repeatedly denied. Concerns about Chinese cyber espionage against US defense contractors and government agencies were underscored in a report to Congress last week. The report concludes that hackers have accessed designs for more than two dozen major US weapons systems. One senior military official was quoted in the Washington Post as saying China has saved itself 25 years in research and development on military weaponry.

Also last week, China denied reports of hacking Australia’s new spy agency headquarters in Canberra.

This weekend’s Shangri-La defense summit, the premier Asian-Pacific security forum, takes place annually at Singapore’s opulent Shangri-La Hotel.

The summit kicked off Friday night with a keynote address by Nguyen Tan Dung, Prime Minister of Vietnam. Dung said he welcomed the prospect of the US playing a larger role in promoting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.

“No regional country would oppose the strategic engagement of extra-regional powers if such engagement aims to enhance cooperation for peace, stability and development,” Dung said. “We attach special importance to the roles played by a vigorously rising China and by the United States — a Pacific power.”

Over the course of the weekend summit, Hagel was scheduled to hold bilateral talks with the Vietnamese prime minister, as well as with defense counterparts from the Philippines, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Also scheduled for the Pentagon chief was a trilateral meeting with ministers from Japan and South Korea. Hagel on Sunday is scheduled to visit the USS Freedom, the first of four Littoral Combat Ships that will be based out of Singapore as part of the US strategic focus on Asia.

President Obama is expected to raise the issue of cybersecurity with Chinese President Xi Jinping when the two hold private meetings in California on June 7-8, the two leaders’ first meeting since Xi took office in March.

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