ABOARD A US AIRCRAFT (AP) - Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel will meet with members of a Chinese delegation this weekend and likely talk about ongoing cyberthreats amid new reports that China used computer-based attacks to access data from dozens of Pentagon weapons programmes and other defence technologies.
Speaking to reporters on his plane en route to Singapore on Thursday, Mr Hagel said that the US must find ways to work with the Chinese and other countries to develop rules of the road and a better understanding among nations for the use of cyber.
"These are issues that we're going to deal with, frame up, put right at the top of the agenda," said Mr Hagel, who is expected to have the brief meeting with the Chinese on the sidelines of a session at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an international security conference.
"There's only one way to deal with these issues - that's straight up."
He also noted that cybersecurity will, for the first time, be the topic at a dedicated session in next week's NATO meeting for defence ministers. World leaders have long been talking about the need to set international standards and come to some broad agreements about the responsible use of cyber technologies.
Mr Hagel's comments came on the heels of a report by the Defence Science Board that said nearly 40 Pentagon weapons programmes and almost 30 other defence technologies were compromised by cyber intrusions. The report said that some of the intrusions appeared to be "attributable directly to the Chinese government and military." Other US and private cybersecurity reports have made similar assertions, while also noting that in some cases the breaches emanated from within China, but it was not certain they were directed or sanctioned by the government.
Officials have been warning for years about China's cyber espionage efforts aimed at US military and high-tech programs.
But as the US looks to grow its military presence in the Asia Pacific, worries increase that China can use the information to blunt America's military superiority and keep pace with emerging technologies.
America's expanded focus on the Asia Pacific will also be a key theme this weekend for Mr Hagel, who makes his first trip to Asia as defence chief. He is also expected to assure allies in Asia that despite America's ongoing budget crisis, the US remains committed to shifting more military troops and assets to the region.
"We're on track," Mr Hagel told reporters, adding that the Pentagon is moving ahead with "every measurement of that commitment" to refocus on the Asia Pacific.
He also said he expects to meet with China's minister of defence in August in the US, but details have not yet been worked out.
Former defence chief Leon Panetta spoke to the Singapore conference last year, describing plans to assign 60 per cent of the Navy's fleet to the Pacific even as he acknowledged ongoing budget problems.
Congress has been unable to agree on any plan to avoid automatic budget cuts that will slash about US$487 billion (S$608.8 billion) in defence spending over 10 years. Already this year, the military services have had to curtail flight and combat training, ground some Air Force squadrons and delay or cancel some ship deployments.
And the Pentagon has announced it will furlough about 680,000 civilian employees for up to 11 days through the end of the fiscal year, allowing only limited exceptions for the services to avoid or reduce the unpaid days off.