SEOUL — The Pentagon's top leaders arrived Sunday to discuss regional security issues with South Korean military officials amid intensifying crises in the Middle East, deepening cuts in U.S. defense spending and ongoing provocations by North Korea.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Seoul in part to reassure South Korea that the Obama administration is committed to its so-called pivot to Asia despite setbacks in the military's budget and growing unrest in the Arab world.
The Pentagon leaders are expected to discuss North Korea's nuclear program, enhancing South Korea's intelligence-gathering capabilities and possibly extending the 2015 deadline for Washington to hand over to Seoul wartime operational control of U.S. and South Korean troops.
"We're constantly re-evaluating each of our roles," Mr. Hagel told reporters traveling with him. "That does not at all subtract from, or in any way weaken, our commitment — the United States' commitment — to the treaty obligations that we have and continue to have with the South Koreans."
During their trip, Mr. Hagel and Gen. Dempsey also will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korean mutual defense treaty and visit American troops.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry will join Mr. Hagel this week in Tokyo for talks with Japanese officials. President Obama is due to arrive in the region next week.
The Pentagon has played a major role in the administration's refocusing of attention and resources on Asia, which makes the Defense Department's budget problems a source of worry for South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and other allies in the region.
As the world's second-largest economy, China has engineered a decadelong military buildup that has dwarfed its neighbors, many of which oppose Chinese territorial claims over much of the region's strategic waterways.
As the Obama administration announced its pivot to Asia in 2011, it also cut the Pentagon's budget by $500 billion over the next decade and agreed to another $500 billion reduction over 10 years under sequestration — an automatic, across-the-board spending reduction plan.
Officials have insisted that the spending cuts would not affect the Asia pivot. But Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said in July that budget constraints would slow the Navy's plans to home-port 60 percent of its ships in the Pacific by 2020.
"Our Asia Pacific rebalance that I've talked to you about before ... that will be slowed some due to sequestration, but it will continue on, because that is our focus," Adm. Greenert said again Sept. 10 at an all-hands call.
Planning in the Pacific
Although the pivot aims to strengthen economic, diplomatic and military relationships with allies in the region, Pentagon forces and equipment have become the most tangible signs of cooperation.
"Right now, because of sequestration, you have one in three of U.S. Air Force planes grounded because of lack of money, and last I saw was six ships worldwide that are unable to leave port because of lack of funding, and two of those — a submarine and a guided-missile destroyer — are based in the Pacific," said Bruce Klingner, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation.
The Pentagon plans to deploy a second missile defense radar to Japan to guard against North Korean threats, several more littoral combat ships that will rotate through Singapore and as many as 2,500 Marines in Australia.
In addition, the U.S. is negotiating a military presence at the Philippines' Subic Bay and has begun a military-to-military relationship with Myanmar, also known as Burma.
However, Mr. Klinger said fewer forces will be stationed permanently in the region as part of the pivot than had been planned before 9/11. Australian defense officials say privately that 1,200 Marines, not 2,500, will rotate through their country.
"It's a lot of very strong rhetoric, but there are no resources there if you look behind the curtain," said Mr. Klingner, a former CIA official. "China and North Korea can read a budget balance sheet as well as anyone else, so they would realize that there's no 'there' there."
If sequestration persists into 2014, the Navy will be forced to cancel ship maintenance and lose or delay the procurement of new ships, Adm. Greenert testified in Congress on Sept. 18.
Former Navy Secretary Donald Winter said having fewer available ships will reduce the Navy's ability to show U.S. resolve in the region.
"If you have vessels that are in a shipyard needing repair, the timeline for getting those completed, and ready to go to sea, the crew worked up and everything is such that they're really not in any sense usable for any type of contingency response," Mr. Winter said last week at the Heritage Foundation.
The cuts have been made amid growing instability in the region. North Korea has forged ahead with its nuclear weapons program and six months ago threatened to turn its southern neighbor into a "sea of fire" and hit the U.S. with nuclear-tipped missiles. China has become increasingly assertive in its territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
'Uncertainty and unpredictability'
Stressing that the pivot involves more than shifting military assets, the Obama administration noted some diplomatic and economic progress.
For example, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement became effective last year, and negotiations for the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal are underway. The U.S. also has boosted development aid to the region by about 7 percent, and has increased official visits and attendance at regional summits.
"I think [our allies] feel the anchor of stability in the region for the past several decades is here to stay," a senior defense official said on background. "Ultimately, if you ask me what the rebalance is about, that's what it's about, and I think we're well on our way to accomplishing that."
Nonetheless, the defense part of the pivot is "extremely important" to U.S. allies in the region, and talk of defense cuts has created "uncertainty and unpredictability," said Bonnie S. Glaser, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"If we knew today what exactly the reduction in our budget was going to be, and if we could explain how it was going to be allocated around different parts of the world and exactly how it was going to affect our deployments ... then there could be perhaps efforts to reassure and explain that even though we're making some of these cuts, we're still going to be able to maintain our commitments," Ms. Glaser said.
"But the lack of certainty as to how this is going to play out, how extensive the cuts are going to be, how it's going to be allocated across our capability, I think that's really the biggest problem," she said.
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