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Don't Pivot to Beijing

10:29 AM, Apr 12, 2013 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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As imperative as it is to try to enlist Beijing’s help on North Korea, as well as numerous other challenges around the world, these efforts should not, and need not, come at the expense of U.S. allies and partners in Asia, or the longstanding U.S. commitment to upholding the broader balance of power in the region. That is because our best hope for persuading China to exercise its growing power responsibly, not only in the case of North Korea but beyond, is by working with and through Beijing’s neighbors, not by bypassing them.

Secretary Kerry in many respects is the perfect envoy to reassure America’s friends that the second term Obama administration continues to understand all of this, and that its commitment to them, and broader approach to the region, remains unchanged and undiminished. This is because Kerry is himself perceived in the region as potentially more inclined than his predecessor toward a Sino-centric strategy.

In the case of Japan, for instance, Kerry has yet to reiterate Secretary Clinton’s strong public message to the Chinese over their dispatch of ships and aircraft to the Japanese-held Senkaku islands. While Clinton bluntly warned during her final days in office that the U.S. opposed “any unilateral efforts that would seek to undermine Japanese administration” of the islands, Kerry, by contrast, has thus far only said that he appreciates Tokyo’s “restraint” in the ongoing tussle over the Senkakus.

Many in Asia also suspect that Kerry is simply less interested in their part of the world than Clinton was, and more inclined to devote his time and attention as secretary to the assorted crises in the Middle East. It doesn’t help matters that, despite extensive international travel as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over the past four years, he rarely ventured east of Islamabad. (No one in Japan, for instance, can seem to recall the last time he set foot here—never a good sign.) 

As the Obama administration’s own evolution during its first term shows, Kerry’s trip can start to lay to rest some of these doubts and concerns—and hopefully, he will do so. Otherwise, North Korea won't be our only problem in Asia.

Vance Serchuk is a Hitachi-Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, based at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo. 

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