What John Kerry is Doing Right and Wrong in East Asia
Image Credit: U.S. State Department (Flickr)

What John Kerry is Doing Right and Wrong in East Asia


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:

history is written by the victor
April 19, 2013 at 01:37

Strange that the U.S. politicians (Congressmen) are so upset about that little feint concerning their missile shields. With or without those shields the U.S. currently has enough nuclear firepower to destroy the whole world several times over. Why need those unrivalled missile shields ? What for ?  Is it a fear of an invasion by Martians? Or maybe an invasion by travellers from another galaxy.

Wim Roffel
April 18, 2013 at 23:26

First the US organizes a military exercise that simulates an invasion into North Korea right at the border – what results in predictable NK reactions. Then it sends in Kerry to convince the neighboring countries to toe America's line regarding NK. In this context he puts heavy pressure on China to become less cozy with NK.

It looks like there has been some blowback and Kerry saw the need to utter some pacifying words to satisfy the Asians – words that he immediately withdrew for his American audience.

April 18, 2013 at 21:56

Let’s not forget there are other countries in the region in contention of the Islands. And the US would do well to remember that Japan is still eyed with suspicion for many in this part of the world, and understandably so. Siding Japan may not be as simple and straightforward as the US politicians think.

April 18, 2013 at 21:08

China is facing immense danger from a bankrupted USA and a Japan that still thinks it did right in WWII.
Will any American Senators pay homage at the Yasukuni Shrine?
Why not, perhaps John Mcain should take the lead ?
The fact that the current crop of Japanese politician do pray at the Yasukuni, show that Japan has no remorse about their war crimes in WWII!
Just imagine if German Politicians erect a shrine for Hitler and his goons and they then pay annual homage to the Nazis war criminal. Would the USA be outraged, I bet it would?
I would suggest that China double your spending on defense and build a strong offensive capability.
As England remarks, the best defense is a strong offensive capability.

April 18, 2013 at 09:43

The offer to with draw missile defenses are the only notable concession made by the Obama administration, so I disagree that it is "irresponsible." We do not even know how regional actors will fully respondas the offer was so recent. Diplomacy is not about forcing other people to come around to your opinion – that is humiliation. Until the US realizes this basic fact, it will always be hated by North Korea and distrusted by China. And FYI, Japan and SOuth Korea do not need "reassurance," but the frank words of a true ally: that they cannot possibly live peacefully in a world where their security comes at the expense of China's,

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief