Originally Published 2014-02-19 07:28:54 Published on Feb 19, 2014
India should be watching Mr John Kerry's trip to Asia with interest considering that the US and China have just held a dialogue on South Asia, even as the US has refused to hold a bilateral dialogue with India on East Asia in the last year.
Kerry's trip to Asia: An exercise in reassuring allies
" Mr John Kerry has just completed his fifth trip to Asia as Secretary of State. He visited South Korea, Indonesia and China. The visit comes at a time when regional tensions are exacerbating between Japan and China, Japan and South Korea and also among other countries over the East and South China Seas. There has been criticism over the US' neglect of the region. In the last year, US President Barack Obama cancelled his trip to the APEC and EAS while Mr Kerry spent much of his time trying to bring about a resolution to the West Asia crisis. The countries in the region are also increasingly beginning to question the credibility of US security guarantees and US extended deterrence.

In Seoul, Mr Kerry reiterated the Obama administration's commitment to the rebalance to the Asia Pacific and defended South Korea at a time when there is increasing concern about the credibility of US security guarantees. Describing South Korea as the lynchpin of stability and security in Northeast Asia, Mr. Kerry also announced that President Obama would be visiting the country for the fourth time later in April. The North Korean nuclear issue also came up prominently in his trip, with Mr Kerry saying that the US will not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. On the tensions between two key allies, Tokyo and Seoul, he urged the two countries to work together to put history behind them and re-emphasised the importance of trilateral discussions.

In China, he focussed on getting more support from the Chinese in helping to achieve the goal of denuclearisation vis-à-vis North Korea, whose only ally is China. Essentially, he wanted China's help to bring Pyongyang back into the now-disrupted six-party talks on the nuclear issue. But North Korea under Mr Kim Jon-un might not be very amenable to Chinese pressure as seen from the fact that Pyongyang refused to listen to China's request last year to cancel a nuclear test. Neither did it inform Beijing about the move to arrest and execute Kim Jong-un's uncle, Jang Song-thaek, considered to have been keen on promoting trade with China. Also, with North Korea adopting the Pyongjin policy, which declares developing nuclear weapons as one of the two aims of the State, achieving progress on denuclearisation would be much more difficult than before. Importantly, Mr Kerry reiterated his administration's commitment to building a "historic bilateral relationship" based on "practical cooperation" and "constructive management of differences". Mr. Kerry also emphasised on the need for Washington and Beijing to cooperate on a wide range of issues from Afghanistan, to Iran, to Syria. The two countries also reached an agreement on steps to reduce greenhouse gases, following up on the Obama-Xi agreement at Sunnydale Summit last year.

However, Mr Kerry did touch the human rights situation in China, particularly on the unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang and the need for more internet freedom. More importantly, he emphasised the need for "a calmer, more rule-of-law-based, less confrontational regime with respect to the South China Sea" and the need to resolve differences over the issue "in a peaceful, non-confrontational way that honours the law of the sea". Further, he called for China and ASEAN to negotiate a code of conduct to help resolve maritime tensions. This is significant considering that this statement was made a few days after Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel's statement in a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing that the "nine dash lines" used by China and Taiwan to delineate their claims in the South China Sea is against international law.

Climate change was the focus of his trip to Indonesia, a country which is "on the front lines of climate change". Jakarta is also important in Washington's rebalance policy. While congratulating Jakarta for its leadership in promoting a China-ASEAN dialogue formulating a code of conduct in the South China Sea, Kerry stressed that "the region's future stability will depend, in part, on the success and the timeliness of the effort to produce a code of conduct. The longer the process takes, the longer tensions will simmer, and the greater the chance of a miscalculation by somebody that could trigger a conflict."

Mr Kerry's visit and recent statements made by officials like Daniel Russel indicate that the US is trying to assuage concerns about its stance on the maritime tensions in the region and plugging for a rules-based, non-confrontational resolution to these tensions. This should help to some extent in reassuring the US' partners and allies in North East and South East Asia.

India should be watching Mr Kerry's tour with interest considering that the US and China have just held a dialogue on South Asia, even as the US has refused to hold a bilateral dialogue with India on East Asia in the last year. Moreover, the Indo-US relationship has run into rough weather over diplomat Devyani Khobragade incident and trade issues. All of this together might even revive fears of a US-China G-2 in India.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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