To be fair, the list of major national security topics the Senate Armed Services Committee ignored but that Hagel, if confirmed, must command is a long one: Afghanistan, al Qaeda, North Africa and the Mali conflict, even multi-billion dollar weapons procurement and the entire defense budget.
But also on the list is China, the U.S. military’s robust effort under President Obama to open the People’s Liberation Army to warmer and steadier relations, and the administration’s pivot, or rebalancing, to Asia and the Pacific region.
Hagel, in his opening statement, pledged to continue Obama’s pivot and grow U.S. engagement in Asia. He offered nothing more, however, on what he thinks of the U.S.-China relationship or the military capabilities race in which Washington and Beijing are engaged, leaving China experts unsatisfied.
“I just don’t know that he’s thought about it at all,” said Bonnie Glaser, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Glaser was not surprised China wasn’t a larger part of Hagel’s confirmation hearing for two reasons: the Senate has lost some key members who focused on Asia, namely Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), and Hagel entered the room already under fire over other issues that commanded the clock. The little that was said about China was elementary.
“It’s the usual mainstream, obviously, questions that people say about China. And I think we need to look beyond whether China is being militarily transparent,” she told the E-Ring. “Is that the most important issue today?”
“What’s not being talked about,” she said, “is as China evolves its capabilities, it is seeking to exert greater sea denial and potential sea control over the waters close to China.” At the same time, the U.S. is seeking to maintain its ability to retain control anywhere within those same waters. That will be expensive – more so if the military relationship becomes more competitive than cooperative.
“How do we get to where they don’t insist on being in control of all [of the waters near China], and we don’t insist on access to everywhere [in those seas] right up to their coastline?”
Here is the one exchange on the Pacific Hagel did have, with Hawaii’s Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat:
SENATOR MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Inhofe. I join my colleagues in welcoming you, Senator Hagel.
We live in a complex world, and any secretary of defense should ask tough questions, maybe not particularly politically popular questions. And I see you, Senator Hagel, as that kind of person based on your service to our country, your conduct and responses to the questions asked of you today and the conversation that you and I had.
Turning to your statement this morning, you talked about looking at our future threats and challenges and why the Department of Defense is rebalancing its resources toward the Asia-Pacific region. And of course this kind of rebalance is critically important to Hawaii (in ?) our forward position in the Pacific.
Would you expand as to why and what particular economic or national security factors come in to play as we rebalance to the Asia- Pacific region.
MR. HAGEL: Senator, you know better than most your region and its importance and why it will continue to be important to the world, but certainly to the United States.
As I noted in my opening statement, and you know, we have always been a Pacific power. We have been a Pacific power because we have clear economic interests there. We have diplomatic security interests there. We have strong allies there; I mentioned some of them in my opening statement.
When we look at the growth of economies, we look at trade growth, we look at population growth, the rise of China, but not just China, but that entire Asia Pacific region, we need to stay relevant to opportunities as well as challenges in all areas, but in particular the areas that we see as emerging as to the largest, most significant economic security issues and challenges and opportunities.
It's appropriate that any nation rebalance assets. You have to be relevant to the times, to the shifts, the changes. Our world today is totally different than it was 12 years ago. Our force structure is being refit, and we are looking at a far more agile, flexible force structure as our economies are becoming more agile and flexible.
So for all those reasons and more, that's why we are doing what I think is exactly the right thing to do. It doesn't mean, as I said in my opening statement, that we are abandoning anybody or any part of the world. We can't.
SEN. HIRONO: Senator, and as we live in times of budget constraints, will you commit to keeping me and this committee informed as you develop the strategies and contemplate force posture adjustments that go along with this kind of re-balancing?
MR. HAGEL: Yes, and I look forward to it.