Pentagon chief to stress US 'pivot' in SE Asia tour

Pentagon chief to stress US 'pivot' in SE Asia tour
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel at a news conference.

KUALA LUMPUR - US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel kicks off a Southeast Asian tour on Sunday meant to stress Washington's so-called "pivot" back towards the Asia-Pacific but with attention diverted by trouble in the Middle East.

The Pentagon chief's week-long trip is part of a concerted effort by Washington to rebalance America's strategic priorities towards the Asia-Pacific.

But crises in the Middle East continued to demand Hagel's attention, particularly accusations that the Syrian regime had carried out a chemical weapons attack that left hundreds dead.

He told reporters aboard his plane that the US military had provided President Barack Obama with a range of options for possible intervention and forces had been redeployed as required.

With Egypt in turmoil after the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi and a subsequent crackdown, Hagel also spoke Saturday night to Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi about the volatile situation, US officials said.

On Sunday, Hagel is due to meet his Malaysian counterpart Hishammuddin Hussein as well as Prime Minister Najib Razak, before delivering a speech later.

US officials said Washington wanted to cultivate military ties with Malaysia and other governments in Southeast Asia to ensure stability in the region and to encourage a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

China's assertive stance over the waterway has raised concerns in Washington.

Beijing claims virtually all of the South China Sea and has stoked rising concern among rival claimants, particularly the Philippines, of a gradual takeover of disputed islets.

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