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Mixed signals could derail Asia pivot

Publication Date : 22-04-2013


In public, United States Secretary of State John Kerry proclaims himself satisfied with his maiden visit to East Asia. He reiterated America's alliance with Japan. And he remained unflappable in confronting threats from North Korea. But in private, some Asian governments were not reassured by Kerry's performance which, at times, appeared to contradict previous US positions. The puzzle is whether these are just understandable missteps by a man still coming to terms with the intricacies of diplomacy, or whether they herald the start of a US "pivoting out" of some Asian security commitments.

Every newly appointed US secretary of state is scrutinised for his or her aptitude and alleged biases. Kerry, who - as he jokingly put it - was the first white male to hold that office in almost two decades, was no exception. Foreign governments noted that he was an Atlanticist, someone who spent most of his professional life handling security questions across the Atlantic with Europe and the Middle East.

Not much should be read into this, however, for almost all US politicians of Kerry's generation are Atlanticists, and few had difficulties in refocusing on Asia. Nor should one make too much of the fact that Kerry took his time before embarking on his first Asian trip: that is just due to the fact that some of the key interlocutor nations such as Japan, South Korea and China were changing their leaders at the same time. So it is not on appearances or flimsy protocol that  Kerry should be judged, but on deeds.

Kerry's changed signals

Still, Asians will be justified in wondering what place they hold on his priority list. For it is already clear that unlike Mrs Hillary Clinton, his predecessor, the new Secretary of State has decided to become personally engaged in managing the intricacies of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

That may be understandable, due to the dire strategic situation prevailing in that region. And it doesn't automatically mean that, as he deals with the Middle East, America's top diplomat will have no time for Asia. As Kerry reminded critics, he is capable of "walking and chewing gum".

Still, as every US secretary of state since Dr Henry Kissinger back in the 1970s discovered, personal diplomacy in the Middle East is ultimately a full-time occupation, and often for no productive gain; it demands most of the walking and the chewing. So the balance between the time Kerry will be able to allocate to Asia and the Middle East will remain a legitimate matter of concern. And so will be the substance of Washington's Asian policy.

Since the early 1990s, all successive US administrations have tried to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula by offering engagement to North Korea, provided the country abandoned its nuclear quest, while reiterating America's security guarantees to its regional allies and harnessing the cooperation of China in maintaining regional stability.

During his first trip to the region, Kerry reiterated all these policy tenets. But he appeared unwilling to admit that the latest Korean crisis has fundamentally altered the equation. This is not only because North Korea's war threats were more blood-curdling than ever, but also because Pyongyang is now far closer to acquiring a real nuclear capability which, while still highly unlikely to threaten the US itself, is becoming a direct threat to the region.

Although China is clearly unhappy about this development, Beijing has given no indication that it is either willing or capable of undertaking meaningful action to prevent North Korea from proceeding down the nuclear path. Either way, the main props which sustained US policy are no longer very credible.

North Korea confusion

The policy cannot be discarded immediately, since there are no easy answers to the North Korean conundrum. But Washington could have recalibrated its emphasis by outlining new practical measures to defend its allies. It could have also reminded China that, if it fails to cooperate in preventing future North Korean showdowns, Beijing itself will start paying a strategic price. Pressure will grow on South Korea or Japan to acquire their own nuclear and missile delivery capabilities, and US military presence in the region looms larger.

Yet in public, Kerry did precisely the opposite by only appearing to dilute existing US policies. There was a puzzling offer from him to hold "direct talks" with Pyongyang which was initially presented as a new departure designed to defuse tensions, until US diplomats rushed to explain that "our position hasn't changed, and there are no plans to move towards direct talks because North Korea has shown no willingness to move in a positive direction".

There was also the unedifying spat back in Washington between the Pentagon's Defence Intelligence Agency which told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that it has concluded "with moderate confidence" that North Korea has already succeeded in placing a miniaturised nuclear warhead on the tip of a delivery missile. National Intelligence director James Clapper scrambled to tell Congressmen not to worry since "it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully developed and tested these kinds of nuclear weapons".

The episode reminded both the Japanese and South Korean governments of the old US problem: that Washington's so-called "intelligence community assessment" ultimately boils down to a lowest-common denominator bureaucratic consensus which then proves to be wrong. The US can afford to recover from such intelligence errors; others cannot.

And if this was not enough, US officials also pounced on any flimsy evidence that China is putting renewed pressure on North Korea. A one-liner from a speech delivered by Chinese President Xi Jinping in which he warned that "no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains" was immediately interpreted as a "rebuke" to North Korea, notwithstanding the far more logical interpretation that it was aimed at the US itself.

At every stage of his trip, Kerry gave the impression that he is much more interested in dealing with an East Asia region as he would like it to be, rather than with the one which actually exists.

Doing deals with China

But much more controversial was his apparent offer that the US would be willing to trade some of its missile defence capabilities in return for Chinese cooperation in reining in North Korea. US officials have subsequently tried to suggest this was not a major departure, and that their Secretary of State was merely stating the obvious: that in the absence of a North Korean threat, not many missile defence systems are required in Asia.

Kerry's offer sent shudders down the spines of Japanese security planners, who look upon America's missile capabilities in the region as not only an antidote to North Korea but also as a reassurance against an expansion in China's own ballistic missile forces.

The idea that this US capability could be traded off in a deal between Beijing and Washington was just about the worst possible message any American diplomat could give. And it already prompted a row in Washington: Congressman Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, asked Kerry to explain himself and expressed the "hope" that the offer was just a mistake, the "result of a mistranslation".

For the moment, it's wrong to conclude that such jarring noises herald the start of an American decision to "pivot out" of Asia. Quite apart from the fact that this makes absolutely no strategic sense, the initial decision to devote more resources and attention to Asia and the Pacific region was very much President Barack Obama's, and is therefore unlikely to be touched by any of his Cabinet ministers.

With economic and military resources shrinking, what may be happening is that the US is more interested in expanding the political rather than just the overtly military content in its Asia pivot.

That, in theory, is what some Asian governments wanted all along. But they should be careful what they wish for, since the speediest option which Washington has to reduce its Asian military liabilities is by reaching deals with China above the heads of its allies.

And that's the fear - however irrational - which Kerry will have to dispel during his next trip to the region.


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