John Kerry is on his fifth trip to Asia as US Secretary of State, visiting the Republic of Korea, China, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates, from February 13 to 18.
The most important background for Kerry’s current trip is that some issues in East and Southeast Asia have remained red-hot in the past more than a year. In East and Southeast Asia, the imperative concerns of the United States as a Pacific power include: Orientation of the post-Kim Jong-Il Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and security conditions on the Korean Peninsula, the increasingly tense Sino-Japanese relations as a result of sovereignty disputes over the Diaoyu Islands and historical issues, as well as territorial disputes between China and some Southeast Asian countries over islets in the South China Sea. There is an American shadow behind all such imperative concerns, and each of them involves American interests.
The DPRK nuclear issue and security conditions on the Korean Peninsula are a significant US security concern in East Asia. The “six-party talks” have stopped for a while, the DPRK has conducted a third nuclear test, and political situation in the DPRK has undergone major changes after Kim Jong-Il’s departure. Prospects for the endeavors for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula appear dim, while preventing proliferation is the United States’ most imperative security concern. In American eyes, the ROK, sharing common interests and values with the United States, is one of the important pillars for its Asia-Pacific strategy, and a significant cornerstone for preserving regional security, stability and prosperity. The ROK has pivotal functions in resolving the DPRK nuclear issue and preserving security on the Peninsula. China, as a participant to the “six-party talks”, is an important shareholder in the Korean Peninsula issues. China and the United States share a general consensus on “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, yet there are slight differences between their perceptions of the approach to realizing the “denuclearization”. It is essential for the United States to strive for China’s and the ROK’s support and cooperation on the issue.
Disputes surrounding sovereignty over the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islets as well as historical issues are brewing escalating tensions between China and Japan. Neither country seems willing to see a military conflict for such issues. But nationalist sentiments have kept surging in both countries. The United States’ double-dealing – maintaining nominal neutrality over the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute while actually siding with Japan has offended the Chinese government. And the United States has also been criticizing China’s establishment of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. While meeting Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington D.C. on February 7, Kerry highlighted US obligations to defend Japan and stability of the Asia-Pacific. However, though the United States harbors fundamental distrust of China, and has always been suspicious of and on guard against China’s future development as well as intentions, it cannot ignore China’s influence on international affairs in step with its rising comprehensive national strength. Out of pragmatist purposes, the United States also sees China as an indispensable partner in coping with regional and global challenges as well as resolving international issues. It is obviously in the United States’ interests to maintain a balance in its favor between China and Japan.
As to the South China Sea issues, the United States has always claimed a “no position” stance regarding sovereignty over islands there, and has been appealing for peaceful resolution of disputes. But it has continuously been criticizing China for being “assertive” on the issues, often groundlessly accused that China’s claims sabotaged the principle of “freedom of navigation” it has adhered to, and been demanding to solve the problem by means of international law. Through its expression of concern about the issues, the United States is highlighting its security commitment to its allies and partners in the region. Its most important concern is preserving a balance to the benefit of the United States in the area, and preventing the status quo from being broken. In the eyes of the Chinese government, many of the United States’ deeds are evidently in favor of other claimants, and adverse to preserving stability and peace in the South China Sea.
None of the issues of imperative US concern can be resolved in the short term. No one could know this better than Kerry does.
The United States is the sole superpower of the present-day world. Its “return” or “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific is also an all-round, comprehensive strategy. Its adjustments in military deployment, active participation in multilateral organizations in the Asia-Pacific (particularly the ASEAN’s regional forums and the East Asia Summit), and close attention to the above hotspot issues are all indicators to watch.
Besides these especially eye-catching topics or matters of imperative American concern, in observing Kerry’s Asian trip and understanding US Asia-Pacific strategy, one also needs to pay sufficient attention to US emphasis on other topics, such as climate change, energy security, environmental protection, democracy and civil society growth, cross-border crimes, education development, and epidemic control. Although such topics are not as conspicuous as military, political and diplomatic ones, they are no less significant than political, diplomatic, military and security topics. They are actually more representative of the United States’ attitudes to global or regional development. By actively promoting collaboration with countries like the ROK and Indonesia on such matters, Kerry’s trip to Asia is also intended to preserve, upgrade and deepen American impacts on the region. These measures may indeed yield more profound and extensive effects than merely providing security protection.
The problems in East and Southeast Asia have complicated historical origins. Their resolution is at the same time subject to the restraints of political reality in related countries. Even as a dominator of regional order in the Asia-Pacific, the United States’ impacts on such matters will also be very limited. We will have to wait and see whether Kerry’s Asia trip can promote the realization of the balance and stability the United States anticipates, as well as its ensuing outcomes.
Qiu Chaobing, Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.