John Kerry's moment in Asia

Updated: 2013-04-12 07:12

By Martin Sieff (China Daily)

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John Kerry's moment in Asia

New US Secretary of State John Kerry recognizes the importance of China and Asia. And though he will not seek to dramatically change the direction of US foreign policy, he has already started directing it in a tone and style very different from that of his predecessor Hillary Clinton. This, in all likelihood, will prove to be much more than superficial window-dressing.

Clinton always spoke with a unipolar voice and never appeared interested in the answers she got. Kerry understands the true multipolar nature of the 21st century world. He listens to the answers he gets.

The life-defining experiences of Kerry are a marked contrast to those of Clinton. She was a lifelong ideological politician focused on women's rights and social issues within the United States. Domestic American perspectives and priorities always conditioned the way she saw the wider world.

Kerry, in contrast, served with distinction as a young US Navy officer during the Vietnam War. He followed this with a highly successful career in the US foreign service and then, in his long career in the US Senate, became its foremost expert on Asian diplomatic issues.

Unlike Clinton, Kerry made his first overseas trip as US secretary of state to Europe and the Middle East. This does not mean he will openly or deliberately abandon Clinton's "pivot to Asia" policy. Kerry understands better than any other senior American politician of his generation the leading role of Asia in the modern world. He understands and respects the major political cultures of Asia. There is, therefore, an excellent chance of Sino-US ties improving significantly during his term of office.

That Kerry recognizes the central role of China in Asian security issues was more than evident when he emphasized that Beijing's cooperation was needed to rein in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un.

Kerry's immediate priority is obviously to defuse the DPRK nuclear issue. But he also recognizes the central importance of the US' economic relationship with China. And although he may not abandon traditional US concerns on promotion of democracy and human rights issues, he will express them in talks privately and quietly, without trying to embarrass or undermine his interlocutors.

Some critics have questioned Kerry's power within the Obama administration. They should not. Kerry, like Clinton before him, will be the "vicar" of US foreign policy, the unchallenged chief advisor to the president on all foreign policy issues. He will not be challenged by the Pentagon and the secretary of defense and undermined by them, which was the fate former secretary of state Colin Powell suffered in the first George W. Bush administration.

Besides, new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is Kerry's friend and former colleague of 12 years in the Senate. And like Kerry, he too is a combat-experienced veteran of the Vietnam War. The two men have already shown on ballistic missile defense and the DPRK issues their impressive ability to coordinate their responses quickly and effectively.

Trade disputes with China will certainly arise, but they will be resolved. But the revival of manufacturing in the US heartland and the unanticipated boom in domestic oil and gas production from the so-called fracking revolution (in the horizontal drilling of oil using hydraulic chemical explosive "cocktails") have removed the urgency and potential for bitterness on trade issues on the US side.

Kerry knows that his most complex challenge will be defusing the territorial disputes between China and its neighbors Japan and the Philippines. Here, he is much more likely to try and install a greater sense of realism among leaders in Tokyo and Manila than Clinton did.

He is likely to establish a much better personal and working relationship with the president of China and his foreign minister than Clinton did with their predecessors four years ago. He has already shown his desire to work in partnership with Beijing to defuse the current DPRK issue. And it is highly possible that if the DPRK issue is resolved to the satisfaction of Washington and Beijing both, the US may scale down the "in-your-face" active deployment of its naval and air force configurations close to China as a quid pro quo for defusing the disputes between China and its neighbors next.

Kerry will also deal with a new Chinese president who made clear on his global diplomatic debut last month that he was according priority to Russia in its international relations. Ironically, the conceptual difficulty facing US policymakers will not be acknowledging China's global status, but coming to recognize that Russia, in partnership with China, is still significant. Over the past 13 years, all serious respect for the role of Russia has been lost out on Washington.

Kerry flies to Beijing as the unchallenged director of US foreign policy. His vast experience and personal qualities make him ideally suited to improve and restore the quality of Sino-American relations across the spectrum. He enjoys a unipolar moment of influence and power in Washington as he addresses the challenges of a multipolar world.

The author is chief global analyst for The Globalist and a senior fellow of the American University in Moscow. He is the author of Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationship between the United States, China and India.