America's Asia policy up in smoke


Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a speech on climate change in Jakarta, February 16, 2014.

Is climate change the greatest threat to Asia's future? You could be forgiven for thinking so based on John Kerry's visit to Asia this week, as the U.S. secretary of state chose to soft-pedal concern over China's aggressive behavior and instead focus on peripheral environmental issues. The result was a visit that did nothing to prepare for President Barack Obama's planned trip to the region in April.

From Beijing to Jakarta, Mr. Kerry pounded home the idea that climate change is as serious a security risk as terrorism and the numerous territorial disputes that threaten conflict across Asia's seas and skies. Such American obtuseness, after years of being begged to get more involved in maintaining order, all but guarantees that Mr. Obama's audiences in April will applaud politely while ignoring his words.

One must feel a bit sorry for Mr. Kerry. His trip came soon after his Democratic Party allies torpedoed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations by refusing to consider "fast track" negotiating authority for President Obama. Now all Members of Congress can pick apart any agreement negotiated between America and its Pacific partners. Left with little else to focus on, Mr. Kerry cited the eruption of Indonesia's Mount Kelud volcano to call for action on climate change, as though underground magma flows are sensitive to greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Kerry also doubled down on the Obama administration's disastrous "green energy" policy, encouraging Asia's developing countries to mimic America's taxpayer-funded boondoggles. Washington has wasted billions on green projects such as the Chevy Volt, which has almost no sales despite its great cost to taxpayers. If this is the White House's economic strategy for Asia, it may be time to start looking at European stocks again.

When Mr. Kerry did address the important issues facing Asia, he appeared impotent. In Beijing he praised China's "commitment" to North Korean nuclear disarmament, despite the fact that Beijing has consistently abetted the Pyongyang regime, allowing it to become a nuclear power. Worse, Mr. Kerry called out Beijing's support for North Korea while visiting Seoul, suggesting that he was too fearful to confront his Chinese hosts to their faces but happy to criticize them behind their backs. Such is not the behavior of a confident superpower.

By skipping Japan on this trip, Mr. Kerry also missed an opportunity to try to mend relations between Tokyo and Seoul. Mr. Obama will visit both capitals in April, but presidential-level summits aren't the time to engage in new initiatives. If only Mr. Kerry devoted as much time to the Japan-Korea split as to the chimera of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

With trade talks derailed and allies increasingly skeptical of Washington's competence, it is difficult to discern what the Obama administration plans for the next three years in Asia. The U.S. still does many important things-such as the military exercises held last week in Thailand-but its overblown "pivot" rhetoric has caused it unnecessary trouble. Speaking softly and carrying a big stick would have served American and allied interests better than raising expectations that couldn't be met.

The Chinese government criticizes the American pivot to Asia as destabilizing and counterproductive, yet Beijing's own actions have revealed that America's bark is worse than its bite. Just as Washington was talking about expanding military relationships and becoming a bigger presence in Asia, China was pressing ahead ever more forcefully with plans to confront neighbors over disputed territory. Beijing also has continued modernizing its nuclear weapons arsenal, developing stealth fighters, increasing the size of its navy and striking out into space. Beijing obviously feels that time and momentum are on its side.

The Obama administration must figure out a new way to maintain Asia's fragile stability. If America's commitments to Asia carry too heavy a price, then the White House owes it to the American people to change its policy. But if Asia is truly important to the American future, then Mr. Obama needs to back up his lofty words with serious policies for retaining his country's predominant influence in the Pacific.


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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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