As Secretary of State John Kerry prepares for a series of congressional hearings this week, it’s worth taking stock of his recent visit to East Asia. In the balance, he has earned both criticism and some praise.
On the one hand, Mr. Kerry disturbingly suggested that the United States might not only consider trading its missile defenses for yet-to-be-defined Chinese cooperation on North Korea, but also may lower the bar for direct talks with Pyongyang. On the latter point of direct talks, he quickly sought to undo his rhetoric, as illustrated in an exchange reported by the Washington Post’s Anne Gearan that almost reads like an episode of HBO’s Veep:
Kerry said he was speaking “personally,” and a State Department official said afterward that the United States has made no official offer of government-to-government talks.
“Our position hasn’t changed, and there are no plans to move toward direct talks, because North Korea has shown no willingness to move in a positive direction,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to clarify Kerry’s remarks.
More jarringly, the Secretary’s remarks on missile defense risk undermining the Obama administration’s calibrated efforts to reassure our allies during the latest standoff with North Korea. Our missile defense capabilities are responsive to an array of threats that affect our allies in the region, including North Korea’s medium-range ballistic missiles, as well as nuclear-armed China’s expansion of its own ballistic missile force. It is irresponsible to crudely treat missile defense programs as a bargaining chip, and Congressman Mike Rogers of Alabama, who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, was right to immediately call on the Secretary to clarify his misstatement in an April 15 letter.
On the other hand, credit should be given where it is due, and Kerry hit the right note in speaking on another regional flashpoint: China’s dangerous efforts to compel Japan to cede the Senkaku Islands. Recently, the Chinese government has sent a combination of warships and civilian vessels to challenge the Japanese Coast Guard vessels patrolling the islands, and early this year locked onto a Japanese ship with fire control radar. Speaking on this issue, Kerry said during an April 14 press conference in Tokyo: