- Associated Press - Thursday, March 27, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will travel to the Pacific next week to convene a meeting of defense ministers from Asia against the backdrop of the massive regional response to the loss of the Malaysian jetliner.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Thursday that Hagel will also stop in Japan and travel for the first time as defense chief to China and Mongolia. He visited Japan late last year.

Kirby said the expansive search for Flight 370 is an example of nations in the region coming together to deal with a disaster, adding that the U.S. is looking for ways to improve its ability to work with other Asia Pacific militaries.

In addition to military operations, there are “many things short of conflict that militaries routinely participate in together, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Kirby told Pentagon reporters. He said Hagel is “keen to get into a broader, deeper discussion about how we can improve those capabilities as well and interoperability between partners and friends.”

The U.S. is hosting a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which will take place in Hawaii next week. The effort is part of the Pentagon’s ongoing effort to expand its presence and activities in the Pacific region.

Military leaders have also been trying to improve U.S.-China relations, which have run hot and cold over the years amid persistent U.S. complaints about Beijing’s lack of transparency regarding its escalating investment in military spending as well as its aggressive pursuit of territorial claims in the seas of East Asia.

China’s recent declaration of an air defense zone over disputed islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea, and its new rules to regulate fishing in a huge portion of the South China Sea, have deepened concerns that its rise as a regional power could spark a confrontation.

Defense and military leaders, however, have also made some strides in improving their relationships and communications with their Chinese counterparts.

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