Wednesday May 27, 2020

The Rebalancing Under Secretary Kerry

July 3, 2013

On July 1 and 2, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took part in the U.S.-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Ministerial Meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), his first such meetings since becoming Secretary of State in early 2013. The U.S. began high-level involvement with ASEAN under President Barack Obama, who has personally attended US-ASEAN Leaders’ Meetings for the last four years. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was very engaged with ASEAN, regularly attending ARF and visiting each of the ten ASEAN countries during her tenure. Secretary Kerry’s attendance at ARF was intended as a demonstration of continued U.S. commitment to the Obama’s administration “rebalancing” or “pivot to Asia” strategy.

As was the case at 2012’s ARF, much of the discussion focused on ongoing maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Unlike 2012, however, this year’s meetings went more smoothly, finishing with a customary Joint Statement. ASEAN and China plan to hold further discussions over a “Code of Conduct” in the South China Sea in September of this year. The U.S. has long supported the development of such an agreement, and Kerry approved of the move, reiterating that the U.S. has “a strong interest in the manner in which the disputes of the South China Sea are addressed.”

Kerry met privately with China’s new Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who, like Kerry, was attending his first set of ASEAN-related meetings. Kerry had a positive outlook on the meeting, placing special emphasis on the fact that China is “cooperating” with the U.S. on efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. In addition, Kerry assured Wang Yi that U.S. anger over Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong would not derail U.S.-China relations. Earlier comments by U.S. officials (including Kerry himself) had warned of possible consequences for allowing Snowden to fly to Russia despite a U.S. extradition request.

In his public remarks at the U.S.-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, Secretary Kerry wanted to be “crystal clear” about U.S. involvement in the Asia-Pacific region: “[S]ome people have wondered whether in the second term of the Obama administration and with a new secretary of state, we are going to continue on the path that we have been on. And the answer, I say to all of you directly, is yes. Not just yes, but we hope to increase the effort.”

Despite these remarks, there are still doubts that Kerry is as personally engaged in the Asia-Pacific region as Hillary Clinton was. Kerry’s first official trip abroad took him to the Middle East and Europe, causing some to question whether the Obama administration was returning to its traditional focus on the Atlantic and Middle East. Since taking office, Kerry has visited traditional U.S. partners Israel, France, Jordan, Turkey and the UK multiple times, while he has paid one visit each to China, Japan and South Korea (with all three visits coming on the same four-day trip). Kerry’s arrival in Brunei for the ASEAN meetings marked his second trip to Asia-Pacific region since assuming his position as Secretary of State—half the number of times he has visited Israel. Kerry even cancelled scheduled meetings with Indonesia and Vietnam (which would have been his inaugural visits to each of those countries), opting instead to revisit Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel.

Even while Kerry was in Brunei, he held numerous sideline discussions regarding the Syrian civil war and the diplomatic fallout over National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. According to State Department officials, the Syrian crisis was a major topic of discussion in Kerry’s private sideline meetings with both the Russian and the Turkish Foreign Ministers. Meanwhile, the European Union’s foreign policy chief met with Kerry to ask for an explanation regarding Snowden’s claims that the NSA had spied on the EU. In Western media coverage, most of the articles on Kerry’s visit focused on these issues—Edward Snowden, the NSA, and Syria—with little mention of the topics being discussed at the ASEAN meeting.

Analysts and diplomats alike have taken Kerry’s travel schedule and the focus of his meetings as hints that the Obama administration’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific is wavering. Chinese and American media sources alike claim that Asian diplomats and leaders are unsure whether or not the “rebalancing to Asia” will actually continue during Obama’s second term. Kerry’s recent visit to Asia, cut short and sidetracked by numerous other issues, was hardly the reassuring statement Secretary Kerry sought to portray.


For more information on the ASEAN summit and Secretary Kerry’s involvement, please see the following news sources:

Channel NewsAsia“ASEAN welcomes start of South China Sea code of conduct talks”

China Daily“Foreign minister makes ASEAN debut as tensions flare”

U.S. Department of State“U.S. Seeks to Strengthen Relations with ASEAN, Kerry Says”

New York Times“Kerry Says Snowden Affairs Will Not Upset China Relations”

Reuters“Kerry presses China, Southeast Asia to ease sea tensions”

Voice of America“ASEAN Envoys Gather in Brunei for Security Forum”

Washington Post“Kerry praises China on North Korea efforts, but criticizes its action on Snowden”

Yahoo“Syria, Snowden overshadow Kerry-Lavrov meeting”


For Chinese-language commentary on the ASEAN summits and Secretary Kerry, please see the following news sources”

China News (中国新闻网) “东盟外长会议在文莱举行20多场活动将接踵登场”

Huanqiu (环球网)“克里被指忽视亚洲 美媒吁其勿忘‘亚太战略’”

People’s Daily (人民网)“王毅强调南海问题应由直接当事方谈判解决”

Phoenix (凤凰网)“日本外相抵达文莱 媒体称其欲联手东盟牵制中国”

Sohu (搜狐网) “东盟外长会今闭幕 南海问题再度成焦点”

Xinhua (新华网)“综述:东盟外长会及系列会议在文莱举行”


Compiled and edited by Shannon Tiezzi.