Argument

Has Foggy Bottom Forgotten Asia?

Has Foggy Bottom Forgotten Asia?

For an illustration of Secretary of State John Kerry’s commitment to Asia — or lack thereof — look no further than his travel schedule. On July 1, he arrived in the tiny nation of Brunei for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, an annual multilateral dialogue. In the weeks prior, Kerry canceled inaugural stops in Indonesia and Vietnam so he could return to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel for the second, third, and fourth time as secretary, respectively. Then, instead of holding important meetings with Asian allies and partners in Brunei on the evening of June 30 and morning of July 1 as originally scheduled, Kerry decided to stay an extra day in Israel. This disregard for U.S. interests in Asia is unacceptable.

Kerry’s agenda at the State Department has been dominated by crises in Syria, Iran, and the Arab world — at the expense of Asia. In diplomacy you vote with your feet, and since taking office in February, all but one of Kerry’s overseas trips have included a visit to either Europe or the Middle East. Before Brunei, his lone venture to East Asia came in April. According to people familiar with the matter, he piqued the Chinese with Saturday meetings and initially planned to cram his stop in Japan — one of America’s most important allies — into a Sunday afternoon. (He ended up allowing Tokyo part of a Monday as well.) Four days after returning to Washington, Kerry was back on a plane to Turkey for meetings with the Syrian opposition.

Yes, Kerry’s personal commitment to Syria, attention to Iran, and efforts to kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are commendable. But diplomats and policymakers in Washington and throughout Asia are beginning to doubt Kerry’s dedication to the principal foreign-policy innovation of President Barack Obama’s first term: the rebalancing, or "pivot," of U.S. attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region after more than a decade of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Even before Kerry was nominated to be secretary of state in December, there was already widespread concern in Asia that the new leadership in the State Department would shift its focus away from the region.

Asian officials and scholars visiting Washington over the last year have all been asking the same question: Will the pivot endure into Obama 2.0? A Southeast Asian ambassador to the United States told me recently that there was "a lot of anxiety" among his colleagues about the current State Department’s commitment to the region. By giving short shrift to Asia since taking office, Kerry has done little to reassure them.

Asia’s importance is so obvious it barely needs stating. It is home to more than half the world’s population, several important U.S. allies, the world’s largest democracy, two of the three largest economies, and the most populous Muslim-majority nation. No region is more crucial than Asia in revitalizing the U.S. economy, while a nuclear North Korea and a rising China present challenges that demand Washington’s attention.  

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is faithfully executing the president’s policy on Asia by strengthening ties with allies, building deeper relationships with new partners like Vietnam and Burma, and maintaining a robust bilateral and multilateral engagement calendar. The State Department should be complementing the powerful U.S. military presence in the region with economic, diplomatic, and cultural dimensions. But Kerry’s inattention to Asia means that the rebalance’s most prominent player is the U.S. military. As a result, the United States runs the risk of overplaying its hand on security issues, provoking China and alienating emerging partners who do not want to be seen as picking sides in the region. 

The answer is not for the Defense Department to slow down, but for Foggy Bottom to catch up. Yes, filling key vacancies like the post of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, open since the influential Kurt Campbell left in February, will ameliorate Kerry’s Asian attention deficit. But unless the secretary himself is seen as personally committed to the region, U.S. diplomats in Asia (not to mention those on the 7th floor) will have a difficult time making the case that they represent the leadership and will of the State Department.  

Asian officials need to remind Kerry and top State Department brass that, in diplomacy, showing up is half the battle and that the U.S. absence is having both immediate and long-term implications for U.S. interests. The time for diplomatic courtesy has passed.

It is too early to tell if Kerry’s stopover in Brunei will assuage concerns. That his first bilateral meeting in Brunei was with the European Union’s foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, presumably to discuss Syria and Iran, was not helpful. A longer and more robust trip to Asia, instead of parachuting in and out of multilateral meetings between stops in the Middle East, would be a good start. On July 1 in Brunei, responding to a question that his actions seem to indicate a policy shift in the State Department toward the Middle East and Europe, Kerry said "I look forward to being back here and back here and back here. And we’ll get to know each other pretty well, I hope." That sounds well and good, but Kerry has to follow through. A pivot this big and important doesn’t turn on hope alone.