What John Kerry is Doing Right and Wrong in East Asia

As Kerry prepares for congressional hearings, it’s worth taking stock of his recent visit to E. 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:

"I reiterated the principles that govern our consideration of the longstanding policy on the Senkaku Islands. The United States, as everybody knows, does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands. But we do recognize that they are under the administration of Japan. And we obviously want all the parties to deal with territorial issues through peaceful means. Any actions that could raise tensions or lead to miscalculations all affect the peace and the stability and the prosperity of an entire region. And so we oppose any unilateral or coercive action that would somehow aim at changing the status quo."

Mr. Kerry’s statement on this matter reflects the recommendations of a group of nine senators who wrote the Secretary on April 12, calling on him to reiterate the U.S. position on this important issue and state that the United States will oppose any attempt to coerce our ally Japan.  The letter was signed by Senators Marco Rubio, John Cornyn, James M. Inhofe, James E. Risch, Kelly Ayotte, Robert Corker, John Barrasso, Saxby Chambliss, and John McCain.

The senators’ letter also cited an amendment adopted by the Senate last year as a part of the deliberations on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013. It is unfortunate, however, that although the Senate’s amendment was crafted by Democratic Senator Jim Webb and co-sponsored by Senator Joe Lieberman, no Democrats signed onto the Rubio letter on this issue.

Although few Americans could find the Senkakus on a map, this is a standoff that risks sparking a conflict between the second and third largest economic powers in the world. The United States would not sit on the sidelines, but would intervene on Japan’s side, initiating a direct conflict between the world’s two strongest military powers.

It is essential that the United States clearly articulate its policy on this matter in order to prevent such a disaster, and kudos are due to both Kerry and the senators who urged his statement on this important matter.

Going forward, the Secretary should do more to roll back his suggestions that the United States may be willing to discard our missile defenses and live with a nuclear North Korea.  He should work to persuade China that it is in its own national interest to completely and verifiably dismantle North Korea’s destabilizing nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as argued by Senator Bob Corker in The Wall Street Journal. Hopefully, Mr. Kerry will describe such a strategy when he appears before Congress this week.

Christopher Griffin is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. Robert Zarate is policy director, also at the Foreign Policy Initiative.