Jerudong(Brunei): Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel met with his Asian counterparts on Wednesday as the United States promotes its strategic tilt towards the region but a potential showdown with Syria loomed over the talks.
Hagel plans to call for restraint in the disputed South China Sea and to underscore America`s focus on Asia-Pacific at the gathering in Brunei of defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China and elsewhere, officials said.
The two-day ASEAN meeting is the main event of Hagel`s week-long trip to Southeast Asia but a mounting crisis between Syria and the West has repeatedly competed for his attention.
"We are ready to go, like that," Hagel said in an interview on Tuesday, when asked about potential military action against Syria.
The confrontation over the Syrian regime`s alleged use of chemical weapons has illustrated the challenge facing Washington`s much-touted "rebalance" towards the Asia-Pacific.
Turmoil in the Middle East has repeatedly overshadowed the bid by President Barack Obama`s administration to bolster trade and military ties with economically vital Asia.
Despite Pentagon budget cuts, US officials say Washington will stick by plans to deploy more ships, troops, training and hardware to countries anxious about China`s growing military reach.
Hagel on Wednesday met with Japan`s defence minister, Itsuno Onodera, who thanked him for attending the gathering despite the Syria situation.
Onodera said this week that Japan could be a "main player" if conflict erupts in Asia and needed to be wary of China`s maritime ambitions.
Tokyo is feuding with Beijing over territorial claims in the East China Sea while some Southeast Asian countries have accused China of increasingly provocative acts in asserting its claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.
Such strains are expected to be a key focus of the talks and to feature in Hagel`s discussions with his counterparts from South Korea, Vietnam and Brunei.
Hagel is also due to meet China`s defence minister, General Chang Wanquan, and Myanmar`s defence chief on the sidelines of the ASEAN conference.
The United States has avoided taking a position on individual disputes but Hagel reiterated calls for the adoption of a South China Sea code of conduct to prevent potential clashes.
China has been accused of dragging its feet on the issue, but this year said it would enter into future talks with ASEAN on the issue.
The Pentagon is offering ships, radar and other security assistance to countries in Southeast Asia, partly as a counterbalance to China`s military build-up.
On Tuesday, Hagel announced the sale of eight Apache helicopters to Indonesia during a visit to Jakarta.