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US defense chief to travel to China, Japan next week

WASHINGTON -- Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel will travel to China and Japan next week after hosting a meeting of Asian defense ministers in Hawaii, amid tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over a disputed island chain.

The U.S. military has sought improved relations with its Chinese counterpart, arguing that stronger links will help avoid dangerous misunderstandings.

Beijing has made broad territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea that are not recognized by Washington and its regional allies, including Japan.

Tokyo administers an island chain, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, which is claimed by Beijing, which sometimes sends ships or aircraft to underline its position. Washington has appealed to both sides for restraint.

The gathering of defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Honolulu on April 1 to 3 will mark the first time the group has met in the United States.

Hagel has made relations with ASEAN defense chiefs a priority and the meeting — along with his subsequent tour of Asia — underscored Washington's strategic pivot to the Pacific region, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters on Thursday.

Hagel's trip to Asia, his fourth in less than a year, offers “further evidence of the secretary's personal commitment to the president's rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region,” Kirby said.

Apart from security cooperation, the ASEAN meeting was expected to focus on bolstering disaster relief efforts among governments, including cooperation between military and civilian agencies, he said.

The meeting comes as the United States and Asia-Pacific countries take part in an intense search effort for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing on March 8 with 239 people on board after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing.

The Pentagon's latest strategic plan anticipates an increase in the frequency and scale of humanitarian assistance efforts in coming years, and Hagel “believes that the United States and our partners must be prepared for that reality,” Kirby said.

After the ASEAN session in Hawaii, Hagel will fly to Tokyo six months after launching a review of the U.S.-Japan military alliance.

The visit to Tokyo follows a landmark summit this week between President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye in The Hague.

Washington has sought to defuse friction between Japan and South Korea, two allies considered crucial to U.S. interests as it seeks to confront the threat posed by North Korea and counter China's growing military might in the region.

After Japan, Hagel will travel to China for this first trip to the country since becoming defense secretary in 2013.

“The secretary views this relationship as crucial to our rebalance, and he will emphasize the importance of building trust, increasing openness and transparency and upholding international norms throughout his trip,” Kirby said.

The United States has backed calls by other governments in the region for a “code of conduct” that would set up a framework for resolving a litany of competing territorial claims.

Hagel will wrap up his tour with a stop in Mongolia, which is “becoming a more important security partner for the United States,” said Kirby, citing the country's troop contributions in recent years to U.S.-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“As one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Mongolia also has a growing stake in stability across the Asia-Pacific,” he said.

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