Kerry's Asia swing

On his first visit to Asia as US secretary of state, John Kerry must clarify the doubts he has generated on the constancy of American purpose in the region. If his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, pursued with much vigour the US pivot to Asia, Kerry has cast a shadow over the US commitment to balance the rise of China in the second term of the Obama administration. In his confirmation hearings at the US Senate earlier this year, Kerry hinted at his discomfort with the proposed rebalance of US military forces to Asia and wondered if it was either necessary or sensible. Although US officials have insisted since then that the pivot to Asia remains American policy, Kerry had done enough to spread political confusion. Every word that Kerry utters during his swing through South Korea, Japan and China this weekend will be watched closely in Asian capitals, including Delhi, to get a sense of where America is headed in the region.

That Kerry, unlike Clinton, did not make Asia his first destination abroad as America's chief diplomat has added to the concerns that the region is not at the top of his list of priorities. Kerry chose Europe, instead, for his first trip abroad and has dived into the politics of the Middle East, where he has already travelled twice. Kerry's lack of familiarity with Asian political leaders and security establishments is no secret. Although he served in the Vietnam war as a young man, Asia has not been his main interest during his long political career. During the three decades that he sat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Kerry visited China only five times, the last in 2009. His last visit to Japan was in 2000 and he travelled only once to Korea, in 2007.

Kerry's real problem in Asia, however, is different. His ability to clear the air on the long-term American commitment to the region is complicated by the current crisis in the Korean peninsula, which will take up most of his energies. While there are few good options to deal with Pyongyang's sabre-rattling, Washington's growing diplomatic dependence on China to defuse the nuclear crisis exposes a profound faultline in America's Asian strategy. If the pivot to Asia was the American response to Chinese assertiveness in the region, Kerry now wants Beijing to play a more active role in the Korean peninsula. That Beijing will take advantage is not in doubt. Kerry's ability to cope with this contradiction is.

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