March 22, 2013

Secretary Kerry and the Future of the U.S. Rebalancing to Asia

The end of President Obama’s first term elicited an inevitable question about the future of U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific: “Would the U.S. rebalancing to Asia survive Hillary Clinton’s departure from the State Department?” Kurt Campbell, the indefatigable Assistant Secretary forEast Asian and Pacific Affairs, was also stepping down. The two had been chief architects of the U.S. "pivot" to Asia, embodying the rebalancing of U.S. commitment to the region both in their strategic vision of where the United States ought to be investing in the twenty-first century, and in their tireless engagement with Asian allies, emerging partners, and regional institutions.   

Most in the region had strongly welcomed the increased allocation of U.S. attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific, but so too did they worry that a subsequent withering or reversal of the rebalancing strategy during Obama’s second term would undercut the indispensible role the United States was playing in underwriting regional security and supporting the construction of a regional order undergirded by norms, rules, and institutions.

The nomination of Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State did little to ease these concerns. Kerry was largely seen as an Atlanticist, and his initialbriefings at the State Department left many with the impression that he would focus primarily on the Middle East, Iran, and Russia, possibly at Asia’s expense. These perceptions were reinforced during his opening weeks as Secretary by the curiously slow pace of nominating a new Assistant Secretary for the region and by the fact that Kerry (unlike Clinton) did not make his first trip abroad to Asia.  

What then, should we make of Kerry’s first weeks on the Asia account? The answer is: Frankly, not much. Kerry’s travel to the Middle East should not beread as an expression of a shift in policy prioritization, but rather as a reflection of the reality that the challenges posed by Iran, Syria, and the Arab Spring continue to occupy U.S. policymakers. Few in U.S. foreign policy circles believe that the U.S. rebalancing to Asia requires that the UnitedStates walk away from the Middle East. Furthermore, the timing of Kerry’s first trip to Asia as Secretary was likely delayed by the National People’sCongress in Beijing in mid-March. It would have made little sense to travel to China before Xi Jinping was formally anointed China’s new president.  

Furthermore, although Clinton and Campbell executed much of the rebalancing agenda, the policy was never seconded entirely to the State Department. The White House has played a central role in coordinating and advancing the strategy, and the Asia team on the National Security Staff remains in place (for now). National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies shortly after President Obama’s November reelection was a clear statement from the White House that the rebalancing would move forward in the second term regardless of personnel changes in the Cabinet.  

Similarly, the Pentagon has assumed an increasingly active role in developing the strategic contours of the policy, both at the Deputy Secretary and Assistant Secretary levels. There, too, there has not been significant turnover among the key players on Asia policy. This means that on balance the departures at the State Department are notable, but nothing equivalent to a wholesale change of government that might have led to a fundamental adjustment or reassessment of the policy.   

What can be said regarding Secretary Kerry’s likely effect on the rebalancing policy? A number of upcoming events and decisions will be telling of where his priorities are and, as a result, how central the State Department will be on Asia strategy going forward. First, Kerry will need to help nominate an Assistant Secretary who has both the gravitas and vigor to pick up where Kurt Campbell left off. Campbell is a difficult act to follow,but he left behind a wake of bilateral and multilateral engagements to which the new Assistant Secretary can easily subscribe. 

Kerry himself will need to demonstrate he has both the interest and policy chops to maintain the momentum of expanding U.S. presence and leadership in Asia. His interventions at the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit will have to be consequential, thoughtful, and resulting from close consultation with countries throughout the region.  Kerry will also have to demonstrate deft diplomacy in advancing U.S. relationships with traditionalallies as well as emerging partners.  

Careful attention should also be given to the managing of the U.S.-China relationship. Kerry should continue Clinton’s efforts at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue to the make the meetings more substantive, while limiting the amount time high-level officials spend at large formalplenaries. Kerry will further have to ensure that his Deputy advances the ongoing evolution of the Strategic Security Dialogue, a vital engagement of increasing importance as the United States and China face a burgeoning set of sensitive regional and bilateral issues. Secretary Kerry should also encourage his new Assistant Secretary for Asia to further institutionalize the Asia-Pacific Consultations, arguably the most substantive exchange in the entire relationship. 

Taken together, despite concerns in the region, it is premature to predict that the rebalancing will be diminished or fundamentally reshaped by Secretary Kerry. Nor is there reason to believe Kerry has the intention or ability to make significant changes to U.S. China policy. The rebalancing strategy has strong momentum and influential champions, notably in the White House and Pentagon, and Kerry himself, as well as his staff, will have ample opportunities to continue the vital task of augmenting America’s political, economic, and security engagement in Asia. Should Kerry choose to do so, he will find that his predecessors built a strong foundation upon which to build.