The Cable

Hagel Puts Off High-Profile Trip to Vietnam and Myanmar

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s upcoming and highly anticipated trip to Myanmar and Vietnam has been postponed, according to a defense official, potentially fueling regional fears that Washington is turning its back on Asia to focus more on Europe and the Middle East. The trip has been pushed back to early next year because the ...

Chip Somodevilla
Chip Somodevilla

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s upcoming and highly anticipated trip to Myanmar and Vietnam has been postponed, according to a defense official, potentially fueling regional fears that Washington is turning its back on Asia to focus more on Europe and the Middle East.

The trip has been pushed back to early next year because the 10-day-long trip clashed with planned congressional hearings, one defense official said. Hagel was set to travel to the region in mid-November.

The visit to Vietnam also was of personal significance to Hagel — who was wounded in the war there — and he didn’t want the trip there to be overtaken by the ongoing crisis in Iraq and Syria, the official said. It’s not clear why the defense secretary made the decision to push off the trip now given that the fight against the Islamic State has been raging for many months.

The cancellation comes as American allies in the region are growing increasingly concerned that the administration’s long-planned pivot to Asia has stalled. Writing for Foreign Policy in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would shift its foreign affairs focus from Iraq and Afghanistan and toward the Far East.

"One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region," Clinton wrote. 

However, after the article was published the political fight over Obamacare kept the president’s attention at home. On the foreign-policy front, Obama is now consumed with the fight against the Islamic State, keeping his attention in Syria and Iraq.

In the past, the Pentagon has taken steps toward refocusing on the Asian Pacific. High-ranking defense officials, including Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, have both visited Vietnam. Secretary of State John Kerry has also paid more diplomatic attention to the region during the president’s second term.

However, as China became embroiled in a number of territorial disputes with neighbors this past summer, leaders of American allies in the region began loudly calling on the White House to do more. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, for instance, asked the United States to provide a "stronger voice" against China after confrontations between coast guard vessels near a Chinese oil rig located in contested waters off the coast of Vietnam.

Obama is still scheduled to visit the region later this month when he attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Beijing, the East Asia Summit in Myanmar, and the G-20 meeting in Australia. The trip sparked an outcry among cash-strapped media organizations when the White House told reporters that flights on the press charter plane trailing Air Force One from country to country would cost a jaw-dropping $60,000 per person.

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