Kerry’s Asian Crash Course

Amid North Korea’s threats of war, Secretary of State John Kerry is making his first trip to Asia, a place his is less familiar with than Europe or the Middle East.

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Secretary of State John Kerry during the annual ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial complex in Jerusalem on April 8, 2013.

When Secretary of State John Kerry visits countries in Europe, he often reminisces about his childhood growing up there. On his second trip to Israel last weekend as Secretary of State, he recalled climbing the ancient site of Masada in 1986. When he greeted U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Michael Corbin, the two recalled their adventures in Egypt a decade ago when Corbin staffed the embassy in Cairo.

But when Kerry arrives on his first official trip to Asia on Friday, he will have fewer stories and relationships to fall back on. Relative to the thousands of times he’s been to Europe and the hundreds of times he’s been to the Middle East, Kerry’s experience in Asia has been relatively thin. During his 29-year-tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he visited China just five times, the last time in 2009; Japan five times, the last time in 2000; and South Korea only once in 2007. Kerry “seems more comfortable in his knowledge of Europe and the Middle East,” says Jerome Cohen, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, “but this isn’t rocket science to understand what’s happening in East Asia.”

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It may not be rocket science, but Kerry’s trip will probably involve rockets. A region in crisis will meet the secretary with Pyongyang threatening to launch a nuclear war against the United States any day. North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’s missiles may not have the capacity to reach the U.S. homeland, but their weapons are well within reach of South Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines and the U.S. outpost of Guam. After Kim last week ripped up the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, the populations there are worried that war might be imminent. North Korea last weekend warned foreign diplomats to leave the country before April 10 or risk getting caught in the crossfire if hostilities break out. None thus far have elected to leave.

North Korea is one of the few Asian subjects about which Kerry has occasionally written. His last op-ed in the L.A. Times in June 2011 called for greater engagement with North Korea and direct one-to-one talks, a position from which Kerry has since retreated from given North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests earlier this year. Except for the sporadic North Korean op-ed, Kerry’s opinions on Asia are virtually unknown. Kerry’s “interest has not been there,” says Douglas Paal, an Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He has not been an activist on China, Korea or Japanese policy issues at his time in the Senate.”

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While Hillary Clinton made her first trip as Secretary of State to Asia to underline the importance of the Administration’s strategy to rebalance its attention eastward, this is Kerry’s third trip and he has yet to fully endorse the rebalance, making Asians anxious that they are no longer America’s top priority. Kerry “did not choose to bring up the rebalance segment. I don’t know whether he thinks it’s been oversold or it’s really Hillary’s issue not his,” Paal says. “I think this trip will be an opportunity for Kerry either to feed that concern or to put it to rest.” Another source of worry: Kerry has also yet to name a replacement for Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who left on Feb. 8.

North Korea will likely dominate his talks, but Kerry plans to use the brief three-day trip to also discuss climate change in Beijing and economic development in Seoul and Tokyo, including, most likely the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement in the works. He’ll also deliver a speech in Tokyo on Asia and America’s hopes and goals, his staff says.

At the end of his first trip as Secretary of State to Europe and the Middle East, Kerry was asked how many of the 40 officials he met on the trip he’d already encountered before. Thirty-nine was his answer. By comparison, the trip to Asia will be a bustle of new faces or recent acquaintances. Kerry will meet for the first time the new Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. He will also meet Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Yun Byung-Se, both of whom he met in Washington for the first time in the last six weeks. “With Asia Kerry has a very detailed knowledge,” says Ken Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, “but I don’t think he has personal relationships out there.”

The unfamiliarity goes both ways, Kerry is a blank slate to many Asians, who will be watching closely for clues about his personal views on Asia, says Lieberthal. “Clinton ended up being more negative on China, in many ways, than President Obama,” Lieberthal says. “Secretary Clinton conveyed more that China was not so much the center of the rebalance than the bull’s eye. And I think the Chinese felt like they were the bull’s eye. So the question is how Kerry will come across on this. Is he closer to the balance and the body language that the White House wants or is he more in the direction that Secretary Clinton took? His words and tone and body language will be watched very closely for those signs.”

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There is, of course, one place in Asia where Kerry has spent a lot of time: Vietnam. The former war veteran helped to normalize relations with Vietnam in 1995, a model of engagement with a communist country that CFR’s Cohen says he might try and replicate with North Korea. Kerry could “pursue the path we pursued with Vietnam and China, which is to establish diplomatic relations and a terrific aid program to get them on their feet,” Cohen says. “North Korea may not accept it. Opening up could lead to the regime’s down fall, whereas if they stay closed they’ll last longer, but it’s worth a shot.”

Kerry arrives in Asia fresh from a ambitious attempt at jump-starting the Middle East Peace process, but he could find that his legacy may just as easily be defined by events on the ground in Asia as any work he does on the other side of the world.

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