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John Kerry on China and the Pivot

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China Power

John Kerry on China and the Pivot

Will America move away from its much discussed pivot to Asia? Recent remarks by John Kerry may provide clues.

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.