John Kerry on China and the Pivot
Image Credit: Flickr (U.S. State Department)

John Kerry on China and the Pivot


When it came to China, Secretary of State John Kerry’s confirmation hearing touched on a little bit of everything. Here is what he said he wants:

- To compete with China economically in Africa—this will be tough given the extraordinary government resources China pours into its trade and investment effort in the continent;

 - To use the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as leverage with China to ensure commonly accepted rules of the road on trade—of course the TPP has to move forward for this to happen;

 - To cooperate with China more closely on North Korea—that’s been an item on the U.S. wish list for twenty years…but the chances are better than ever before

- And to work together with China on the full range of regional and global challenges, such as climate change. Excellent, but it would really help if Secretary Kerry could persuade his former colleagues in Congress to pass climate legislation here at home.

What has garnered all the attention, however, is what the Secretary said with regard to the pivot:

"I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet. I’m not convinced of that. That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully when and if you folks confirm me and I can get in there and sort of dig into this a little deeper. But we have a lot more bases out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. We have a lot more forces out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. And we’ve just augmented the president’s announcement in Australia with additional Marines. You know, the Chinese take a look at that and say, what’s the United States doing? They trying to circle us? What’s going on? And so, you know, every action has its reaction. It’s the old — you know, it’s not just the law of physics; it’s the law of politics and diplomacy. I think we have to be thoughtful about, you know, sort of how we go forward."

Secretary Kerry’s apparent unease with the pivot has unsurprisingly set the Chinese press all atwitter and given Chinese analysts some hope that President Obama has appointed a kinder, gentler Secretary of State. The major Chinese state-supported newspapers—the Global TimesPeople’s Daily, and Xinhua—highlighted his remarks on the pivot and then offered some thoughts on Kerry’s likely diplomatic approach:

China Institute of International Studies’ Ruan Zongze: “Compared with Clinton’s tough diplomatic approach, Kerry as a moderate democrat is expected to stress the role of bilateral or multilateral dialogues”;

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Ni Feng: Kerry’s “diplomatic measures” will “greatly embody Obama’s concepts.”

In reviewing Secretary Kerry’s congressional voting record, Chinese observers also noted that he “generally voted in favor of bills conducive to promoting the development China-U.S. relations and generally voted against or expressed different opinions for bills not conducive to China-U.S. relations.” Overall, as People’s Daily observed, “Kerry stresses more on coordination rather than confrontation in foreign relations…”

Secretary Kerry does not, of course, stand alone in his questioning of the pivot. CSIS Senior Associate Edward Luttwak recently suggested in a panel discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations that the United States should refrain from putting itself front and center in Asia; instead, it should give the other countries in the region time to coalesce among themselves. This is an attractive idea—it conserves U.S. resources and keeps the United States out of Beijing’s crosshairs, at least a little bit. However, it’s not entirely practical. Some of our allies—such as Japan and South Korea—don’t actually get along that well right now and may need a gentle push from the United States. Also, a relatively inchoate set of cross-cutting alliances or joint military exercises in the region is quite different from a well-thought-out, well-designed regional security effort that can mobilize assets efficiently.

By suggesting that the pivot may be out of favor, Secretary Kerry has also drawn into question U.S. credibility. Officials and analysts abroad have already raised doubts about U.S. staying power in the Asia-Pacific; Secretary Kerry’s doubts will only add fuel to the fire.

And Secretary Kerry might recast his “action-reaction” narrative. For most observers outside China, it was Chinese assertiveness that was the action, while the U.S. pivot was, in large measure, the reaction.

Secretary Kerry understandably wants to make his mark on U.S. foreign policy over the next few years, and he appears to be setting himself a challenging agenda, including making progress on a free trade agreement with Europe and restarting the Middle East peace talks. However, the original logic of the pivot—ensuring security in the Asia-Pacific and taking advantage of the region’s economic dynamism through a free trade agreement—still stands.

It’s too early to pivot away.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.'  She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.

March 5, 2013 at 01:56

And we're supposed to believe what the chinese said?  Get real.

talking points
March 4, 2013 at 13:06

good thinking, except China has veto power in UN. Japan does not!

March 4, 2013 at 04:00

Africa, that's where the real game is going to be played.  The US and Europe are entering it through the confrontation with Islamist extremists, but ultimately African battles will become proxies for the confrontation between China and the West.  And the seas surrounding China – China doesn't seem to be making many friends out there, and oh yeah, lets see China try to grab some of that Siberia, too.  I think that if China just entered into the current world order as an honest participant, its undeniable potential would earn (not win) it a place of preeminence over just a few decades.  There aren't enough resources left for the industrial world to be sending half of them to the bottom of the ocean anymore.  We all have bigger battles to face. 

talking points
March 4, 2013 at 00:39

Dear Leonard R.

I don't expect you to see the other side. but Chinese DOD said its website has experienced 100 thousand incidence of cyber attack in the past 2 months. 2/3 of attacks are from US.

Just grow up.

March 3, 2013 at 23:28

Hear, hear! West Philippine Sea does not belong to China not in the past surely not now.

Be Way
March 2, 2013 at 17:52

If South China Sea is not China sovereign territory, who else has more rights. I believe that China is benevolent enough to share the resources with all its neighbors eventually when the storm is over but on one condition that any country trying to inflame the dispute further by inviting outside powers to meddle on it, should be repudiated. That one country could possibility be Philippines.

March 2, 2013 at 15:13

Xi would not give that blob of fats the time of day for a meeting.  She is a pain in the neck for any American or Chinese leader. 

March 2, 2013 at 15:09

truth dont need no *moderation*

March 2, 2013 at 07:30

Leonard R. wrote:

March 1, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Liang1A – another long post. Congratulations.


The US and China are already at war. 'Sensitivities' are BS in light of the PLA waging cyber war against the US infrastructure. It's time for the US to fight back. China is a hostile foreign power and an immediate threat to US national security.


I post this same comment or article to more than one forum.

As to America's hostility to China, I had said China cannot depend on the "friendship" of Kerry alone to formulate China's future policy with America.  China must continue to develop and upgrade its military.  In that I'm heartened to hear that China will porbably increase its military spending by some 12% this year to some 750 billion yuan.  As long as China can continue to strengthen itself militarily and at the same time to shift away from exports while banning FDI then China will quickly be strong militarily and economically.  Then as China becomes unassailable it does not matter whether America is friendly or hostile.  I would prefer that America becomes friendly.  But frankly I don't think it will become friendly in any significant way no matter how much people like Kerry want to be friendly to China as long as there are a lot of gun-toting rednecks in the US who want China to be America's eternal enemy.  Realistically speaking, 95% of the Americans think of China as enemy.  And that will take generations to change.  But as China becomes 7 times bigger than America economically and militarily, that is no a problem.  It is America who will finding itself with more and more problems.

Kangmin Zheng
March 2, 2013 at 05:28

We miss Hillary Clinton.   Sept 2012 she came to China looking for Xi and the guy hidden like a thief.   Poor Xi! 

joseph enry
March 2, 2013 at 03:06

Wrong-footed right out of the gate: China lawlessly and criminally operates in the South China Sea and will get its butt kicked by alliance of small but determined neighbors with or without the US pivot. While you are busy deceiving yourself about your military might and blaming the US for everything happening around you, Japan/Malaysia/Indonesia/India/Philippines/Thailand/Singapore/Vietnam are getting upgraded and organized. They concluded on their own what the danger of expasionist China is and will confront you sooner rather than later.

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