Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel meets his Asian counterparts on Wednesday as the United States promotes its shift to the region but a potential showdown with Syria looms over the talks, AFP reports.
Hagel plans to call for restraint in the disputed South China Sea and underscore America's strategic tilt to the Asia-Pacific at the gathering in Brunei of defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), 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 demanded his attention.
"We are ready to go, like that," Hagel told the BBC in an interview Tuesday, when asked about preparations for potential military action against Syria.
The confrontation with Syria over the regime's alleged use of chemical weapons has illustrated the challenges faced by 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 and troops to the region while offering training and hardware to countries anxious about China's growing military reach.
"To be relevant to the security issues in the region, you need to be present," said a US defence official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Hagel is due to hold talks with his counterparts from Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Brunei on the sidelines of the ASEAN gathering Wednesday.
He will also meet China's defence minister, General Chang Wanquan, and Myanmar's defence chief.
Tense territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere will be a key focus of the talks, officials said.
Hagel has renewed US calls for the adoption of a code of conduct at sea 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 matter.
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.
The United States, however, has trodden carefully on China during the trip and officials said Washington wanted to avoid inflaming tensions in the region.
"This is not about encircling China or anybody else," Hagel said in the BBC interview.
"This is about economic interests, it's about the world, it's about prosperity, stability and security."
Hagel acknowledged disagreements with China over cyber security -- Washington has blamed Beijing for extensive digital espionage against American industry and government agencies.
"Yes, we have differences, but the only way to get through those differences is to work through them," he said.
Hagel is also expected to discuss the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programme with Chang as well as ministers from Japan and South Korea.
North Korean sabre-rattling has eased in recent months, Hagel said, but he added the regime must take steps to abandon its nuclear weapons and allow in UN inspectors.
He said: "They understand what needs to happen, what they need to do if they want to be a responsible member of the world community."