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Secretary of State John Kerry on China

by Elizabeth C. Economy
February 27, 2013

U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2013. U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2013. (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters)


When it came to China, Secretary of State John Kerry’s confirmation hearing touched on a little bit of everything. Here is what he said he wants:

  • To compete with China economically in Africa—this will be tough given the extraordinary government resources China pours into its trade and investment effort in the continent;
  • To use the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as leverage with China to ensure commonly accepted rules of the road on trade—of course the TPP has to move forward for this to happen;
  • To cooperate with China more closely on North Korea—that’s been an item on the U.S. wish list for twenty years…but the chances are better than ever before;
  • And to work together with China on the full range of regional and global challenges, such as climate change. Excellent, but it would really help if Secretary Kerry could persuade his former colleagues in Congress to pass climate legislation here at home.

What has garnered all the attention, however, is what the Secretary said with regard to the pivot:

I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet. I’m not convinced of that. That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully when and if you folks confirm me and I can get in there and sort of dig into this a little deeper. But we have a lot more bases out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. We have a lot more forces out there than any other nation in the world, including China today. And we’ve just augmented the president’s announcement in Australia with additional Marines. You know, the Chinese take a look at that and say, what’s the United States doing? They trying to circle us? What’s going on? And so, you know, every action has its reaction. It’s the old — you know, it’s not just the law of physics; it’s the law of politics and diplomacy. I think we have to be thoughtful about, you know, sort of how we go forward.

Secretary Kerry’s apparent unease with the pivot has unsurprisingly set the Chinese press all atwitter and given Chinese analysts some hope that President Obama has appointed a kinder, gentler Secretary of State. The major Chinese state-supported newspapers—the Global Times, People’s Daily, and Xinhua—highlighted his remarks on the pivot and then offered some thoughts on Kerry’s likely diplomatic approach:

China Institute of International Studies’ Ruan Zongze: “Compared with Clinton’s tough diplomatic approach, Kerry as a moderate democrat is expected to stress the role of bilateral or multilateral dialogues”;

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Ni Feng: Kerry’s “diplomatic measures” will “greatly embody Obama’s concepts.”

In reviewing Secretary Kerry’s congressional voting record, Chinese observers also noted that he “generally voted in favor of bills conducive to promoting the development China-U.S. relations and generally voted against or expressed different opinions for bills not conducive to China-U.S. relations.” Overall, as People’s Daily observed, “Kerry stresses more on coordination rather than confrontation in foreign relations.”

Secretary Kerry does not, of course, stand alone in his questioning of the pivot. CSIS Senior Associate Edward Luttwak recently suggested in a panel discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations that the United States should refrain from putting itself front and center in Asia; instead, it should give the other countries in the region time to coalesce among themselves. This is an attractive idea—it conserves U.S. resources and keeps the United States out of Beijing’s crosshairs, at least a little bit. However, it’s not entirely practical. Some of our allies—such as Japan and South Korea—don’t actually get along that well right now and may need a gentle push from the United States. Also, a relatively inchoate set of cross-cutting alliances or joint military exercises in the region is quite different from a well-thought-out, well-designed regional security effort that can mobilize assets efficiently.

By suggesting that the pivot may be out of favor, Secretary Kerry has also drawn into question U.S. credibility. Officials and analysts abroad have already raised doubts about U.S. staying power in the Asia Pacific; Secretary Kerry’s doubts will only add fuel to the fire.

And Secretary Kerry might recast his “action-reaction” narrative. For most observers outside China, it was Chinese assertiveness that was the action, while the U.S. pivot was, in large measure, the reaction.

Secretary Kerry understandably wants to make his mark on U.S. foreign policy over the next few years, and he appears to be setting himself a challenging agenda, including making progress on a free trade agreement with Europe and restarting the Middle East peace talks. However, the original logic of the pivot—ensuring security in the Asia Pacific and taking advantage of the region’s economic dynamism through a free trade agreement—still stands. It’s too early to pivot away.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by May

    12 Million jobs have been shipped to Asia this past decade alone.

    Real unemployment is 22%, not 9% if all the unemployed workers are counted.

    TPP will completely destroy what is left of America.

    “free” trade is not free trade at all. It is arbitrage trade which uses billions of cheap labor Asians to decimate American factories and standard of living.

    Highly respected Researchers, economists, Journalists like Ralph Gomory, Eamonn Fingleton, Pat Choate, Alan Tonelson, Pat Buchanan have been warning for decades.

    Asia has unlimited supply of cheap labor. Asians produce 75 million births/yr compared to 4 million births/yr for US.

    Cheap foreign labor is decimating America.

  • Posted by Al LeBlanc

    Kerry’s Position on China makes good sense to me -need mutual
    understanding of NewtonPhysics-for each action equal and opposite reaction – US Pivot Asia viewed as threat by China.
    China cyberwarfare/intellectualpropertyespionage/military
    modernization/expansion threat US and Asian Allies ! Don’t
    want start new arms race with China & Russia.

  • Posted by Tom Snyder

    Secretary Kerry is correct in advocating for further reflection on the Asia pivot. We need to ask whether there really is a coherent strategy in the pivot, or has this been driven more by a strident U.S. military industrial complex attempting to justify further budget outlays at $700 billion, rather than going back to pre-9/11 levels of $400 billion, fueled by the usual “fight for survival irrespective of the logic” organizational behavior in Washington.

    Key questions include: Exactly how will a military pivot to Asia ensure “security in the Asia Pacific?” What are the actual threats the pivot is designed to address? If China decided to ramp up development/energy exploration in the disputed islands (Senkaku/Diaoyu and in the South China Sea), are we seriously interested in sending in the troops to block this, especially given all the messy ambiguities regarding island ownership? What is the national interest for doing this? Can we count on the Chinese to act rationally – given the weak public support for the leadership – if challenged by a U.S. military buildup in the region?

    Note, the Asia pivot is all about the military. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (the free trade agreement Dr. Economy is referring to) was on a separate track and launched well before Secretary Panetta first announced the pivot in 2010.

  • Posted by Df-41

    China should continue to build up its naval and airforce power to counter the Japanese and American fascists.
    The thugs in Washington are itching for a world war. Chinese economy is far too powerful for America to compete economically. The only way the thugs in Washington can compete with China is through military power.

    But as we all know that China is the only country in history to have defeated the US military which happened in the Korean War. The Americans got kicked out of North Korea once China entered the war. China humiliated the overhyped and overrated American military when China was weak.

    China is now building it’s navy, airforce, space, cyber, electronic and missiles.
    China is now building it’s surface fleet with type 056 corvettes, type 054A/B frigates, type 052C/D destroyers, type 055 cruisers.
    China is building it’s submarine fleet with type 041 conventional attack submarine, type 043 conventional ballistic submarine, type 095 nuclear attack submarine, type 096 nuclear ballistic submarine.
    China is building capital ships like type 071/A LPD, type 075 LHD, 2 conventional aircraft carriers.
    Logistic ships like type 903/A replenishment oiler, and mine countermeasure ships, ammunition ships, and many others.
    That’s alot of naval power projection China will possess by 2020.
    I haven’t even talked about China’s airforce development which is even faster than the navy. The Y-9 tactical transport, Y-20 strategic transport, H-X strategic stealth bomber, UAVs and UCAVs.
    Space with new reconnaissance satellites like Yaogan, navigation satellite like Beidou, spaceplanes like shenlong and many other developments.
    China has massive cyber and electronic capabilities like EMP bomb.
    China’s missile forces are the strongest part if the Chinese military both ballistic and cruise missiles.

    Napoleon said to let China sleep, but now that the sleeping dragon is awakening, America will find out what it’s like to go up against a real superpower!

  • Posted by Mahesh


    belligerent talk will only aggravate the situation. We need to calmly find smart solutions to these problems.

    At the center of all these problems is the population explosion in Non-Confucian Asia.

    CFR and policymakers on both sides of Pacific should press for accelerated fertility reduction so that resource crisis in water, food, fuel, minerals can be averted.

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