(Adds Chinese general’s question, Hagel response)
By David Alexander
SINGAPORE, June 1 (Reuters) - The U.S. military will devote more air power, ground troops and high-tech weaponry to the Asia-Pacific region as it moves ahead with a strategic rebalance, the U.S. defense chief said on Saturday in a speech that accused China of cyber incursions.
In remarks laying out his vision for regional security, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel assured allies and partners at the annual Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore that the United States was fully able to continue its strategic pivot to the region despite budget constraints at home.
“It would be unwise and short-sighted to conclude ... that our commitment to the rebalance cannot be sustained,” he said in prepared remarks, noting the United States represented 40 percent of global defense spending even under the “most extreme budget scenarios.”
Hagel sketched out some of the region’s thorniest security issues, including North Korea’s effort to develop nuclear weapons and missiles, competing territorial claims in the seas around China and disruptive activity in space and cyberspace.
While noting U.S. concerns about cyber intrusions linked to the Chinese government and military, Hagel underscored his belief that resolving many regional security issues would require closer cooperation between Washington and Beijing.
“Building a positive and constructive relationship with China is ... an essential part of America’s rebalance to Asia,” he said. “While the U.S. and China will have our differences ... the key is for those differences to be addressed on the basis of a continuous and respectful dialogue.”
On Friday, Hagel said cyber threats posed a “quiet, stealthy, insidious” danger to the United States and other nations, and called for “rules of the road” to guide behavior and avoid conflict on global computer networks.
In questions and answers after Hagel’s speech, Chinese Major General Yao Yunzhu, an expert on U.S.-China defense relations, asked the Pentagon chief what the United States could do to reassure China it really wants a positive relationship when it is focusing so many military resources on the region.
“That’s really the whole point behind closer military-to-military relationships,” Hagel said. “We don’t want miscalculations and misunderstandings and misinterpretations. And the only way you do that is you talk to each other, you have to be direct with each other ... And I think we’re on track with that.”
Hagel outlined numerous military contacts between the two countries over the past year and said the United States encouraged the responsible rise of China and other powers because they would have a vested stake in regional stability.
The speech to the Asian security summit was Hagel’s first as defense secretary. But as a U.S. senator he was an early supporter of the event, led the U.S. congressional delegation to the inaugural session and has addressed the group several times.
Hagel emphasized U.S. efforts to deepen ties with allies and partners in the region through both bilateral and multilateral engagement. He announced he was inviting defense ministers from the ASEAN grouping of nations to a first-ever U.S.-hosted meeting in Hawaii next year.
“Relationships, trust and confidence are what matter most ... in the region,” Hagel said.
The U.S. defense chief used the speech to underscore his long experience with Asia - from his military service in Vietnam, to business travels in China as a cell phone executive to later visits to the region as a U.S. senator.
“What I took away from all these experiences was a firm belief that the arc of the 21st century would be shaped by events here in Asia,” Hagel said, adding that was clear the United States would need to rebalance its resources toward the region once it ended its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, told the Shangri-La gathering last year that the United States would commit 60 percent of its naval forces to the Asia-Pacific by 2020, a shift of about eight ships from the current deployment.
Building on that, Hagel told the conference the U.S. Air Force would commit 60 percent of its overseas-based aircraft and airmen to the region - about the same level as now - while U.S. Army troops and Marines would resume their Asia-Pacific roles as they draw down following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hagel said in the future the Pentagon would “prioritize deployments” of its most advanced weapons systems to the Pacific, including the radar-evading F-22 Raptor jet fighter, the stealth F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Virginia-class fast attack submarine.
He indicated the region could soon see other advanced systems as well, noting the Navy planned to deploy a directed energy laser weapon on the USS Ponce next year and last month successfully launched an experimental jet drone from an aircraft carrier for the first time.
“Combined with new concepts, doctrine and plans that integrate these new technologies and other game-changing capabilities, we will ensure freedom of action throughout the region well into the future,” Hagel said.
Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Michael Perry