Secretary of State John Kerry makes his first trip to Asia facing an increasingly aggressive North Korea and new leadership in South Korea, Japan, and China without the help of an assistant secretary for the region.
“He will have an opportunity in Seoul, in Tokyo, and in Beijing to talk about our shared concern about the direction the DPRK is going in,” says State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
It’s a “very timely visit,” she says, because “the threats we share are common, and the approaches are more likely to be more effective if we can work well together.”
Normally, coordinating that diplomacy falls largely to the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
But Kurt Campbell left that job in February to start a business consulting firm for Asia. There’s a long list of possible replacements — including Harvard professor Joe Nye, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Kathy Stephens, and the National Security Council senior staff director for Asia, Daniel Russel — but no appointment yet.
The principal deputy assistant secretary of state, Joe Yun, is the acting assistant secretary and Russel is handling many of the preparations for this trip from the White House. But Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Asia director Doug Paal says that’s no substitute.
“Not having an assistant secretary to provide the themes, to handle a lot of the meetings at the right levels, means the U.S. is not functioning on all cylinders,” Paal says. “We’re still coming up short. ”
Differences of opinion
That’s partly because of the regular staff turn-over in a second presidential administration. It’s also partly because of differences between Kerry’s people (many of whom favor Nye) and Obama people (most of whom are thought to favor Russel.)
“The White House personnel process has slowed down,” Paal says. “It’s plain that the process has been slowing down through successive administrations, and it’s gotten exquisitely slow in this administration.”
During the first Obama administration, the Oxford- and Yerevan-educated Campbell had the only travel schedule to rival Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s. He brought much of the expertise in driving forward the so-called “Asia Pivot” in U.S. foreign policy and in boosting U.S. engagement with the Association of South East Asian Nations, especially over maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
Jim Schoff, the former U.S. Defense Department advisor for East Asia, says “part of what made Campbell and other past assistant secretaries effective is the relationship that they have or developed with the secretary. And when they have the secretary’s trust and when others know that he or she has their trust and confidence, it really makes them an effective player in the process.”
That’s especially so with new leaders anxious about the U.S. “pivot”, which has now been rebranded as more of a “rebalancing,” so it doesn’t suggest that Washington is turning away from the Middle East.
“Japan really wants U.S. support and wants to feel that it is a central part of America’s Asia strategy. And the fact that we have not named an assistant secretary for East Asia is concerning to some in Japan,” Schoff says.
“When this trip was being put together, you could see the relief on their faces: Kerry’s coming and we need to get him out here as often as possible so that he understands what’s going on here in the region.”
Kerry’s interest in East Asia
Paal says the absence of a regional assistant secretary for East Asia is more pronounced given concern about Kerry’s interest in the region, his history with Vietnam notwithstanding.
“When he’s had an interest it’s been towards Southeast Asia where he had personal experiences 40 years ago,” Paal says. “He has not been an activist on China, Korea or Japanese policy issues at his time in the Senate.”
Hillary Clinton made a big deal out of making Asia her first trip abroad as secretary of state. Kerry went to Europe. Then the Middle East. Then Afghanistan and Iraq.
“There’s been some concern in Japan and Korea that maybe Secretary Kerry is not as committed to the rebalance as Secretary Clinton was, especially with all the budget challenges,” Schoff says. “And I think that will be part of Secretary Kerry’s objective and part of his message — that he is committed and that we have a plan to stay in the region — but it will be overshadowed to some extent by North Korea and all of its rhetoric.”
Pyongyang’s aggressive talk lately is an opportunity for Kerry to begin his relationship with the new Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on issues of agreement (including Iran), instead of contention (Syria, Tibet, cyber-security).
“The escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula may in fact require a new level of strategic discourse in the U.S./China relationship sooner rather than later if escalation is to be contained,” said former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, “particularly given the unpredictability and political inexperience of Kim Jong-un, the domestic political pressure on newly-elected President Pak in South Korea to respond in kind to any fresh military provocation from the North, and the absence of a Chinese ‘Plan B’ if hostilities were to erupt.”