The Asian pivot under new management

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama arrives at Peace Palace in Phnom Penh.

Article Highlights

  • John Kerry and Chuck Hagel's views on China suggest a wobbly future for U.S. strategic rebalancing writes @MichaelAuslin

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  • Neither Hagel nor Kerry has made any significant comments on China's military growth or more assertive action in Asia.

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  • How will Kerry and Hagel balance engagement with China against ensuring stability in territorial disputes in Asia?

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President Obama's "pivot" to Asia was perhaps the signature foreign policy of his first term. Despite questions about the significance of the rebalancing and its specifics, the president and his team repeatedly asserted to allies and partners that Washington's commitment to Asia would increase, while at the same time they attempted to reassure Beijing that the policy was not designed to contain China.

Execution of the pivot will now fall largely to John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, whom Mr. Obama has nominated to become secretaries of state and defense, respectively. Yet questions remain over whether their likely policies will bring greater stability to the region.

A significant problem is that both seem rather muddled when it comes to Asia and America's role in the continent's affairs—when they focus on Asia at all. Witness the sometimes contradictory views both have held over their careers.

Mr. Kerry, whose role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has thrust him more into the spotlight on international affairs, has recognized the mistrust between Washington and Beijing, and has criticized China's unwillingness to do more to respond to North Korea's provocations. Yet he also said in a 2011 Senate floor debate that China would "surpass" the United States, and that the two countries "need" each other. He has maintained his belief that America and China can "pool" their strengths to resolve issues such as Iran's illicit nuclear activities.

As for Mr. Hagel, during his time in the Senate he focused extensively on domestic development issues in China, particularly legal and regulatory reform, human trafficking, and promotion of civil and political rights. He also has publicly discussed the oppressive political and social policies of the Communist Party of China. Yet a decade ago, Mr. Hagel argued that Washington and Beijing are "finding new ways to cooperate," including on North Korea, terrorism and narcotics trafficking, a view he doesn't appear to have disavowed. Since leaving the Senate and becoming the chairman of the Atlantic Council, Mr. Hagel has talked far less about China at all.

Significantly, neither man has made any significant comments on China's military growth or more assertive action in Asian waters. Nor has either appeared to question whether China's defense spending may upset the balance of power in Asia in ways that will undermine the economic or security cooperation they both value. China's rise is the major factor affecting America's allies and partners in the region, and smaller nations' fears of Beijing's military strength will be the prime influence on the demands they make of Messrs. Kerry and Hagel.

Other issues will further tax the two nominees. On North Korea, Mr. Kerry who has taken the stronger stand, stating, for example, in a 2011 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that the Obama administration's response to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile testing was "inadequate." Mr. Hagel called North Korea a more dangerous problem than Iraq back in 2003. Yet both Messrs. Kerry and Hagel have repeatedly called for direct talks with Pyongyang, whether as a way to restart the Six-Party Talks or for their own utility.

But perhaps the biggest problem facing the State and Defense designees is that they expect America to play a larger role in Asia (and the world) while severely reducing the resources, whether diplomatic or military, that are necessary to maintain America's global role. The core of America's alliances in Asia is military, and the coming cuts through sequestration are forcing the U.S. Navy to plan on recalling its ships to port and the U.S. Air Force to ground its planes, except for combat and emergencies. While this is happening, North Korea plans for a third nuclear test and China introduces new fighter jets and prepares for more anti-satellite-missile tests.

Mr. Hagel appears to be a recent convert to cutting what he calls a "bloated defense budget"—a position opposed to his Senate record—but that appears to be in response to ending wars in the Middle East he no longer supports. How he feels about the Chinese military challenge remains unknown.

All of this suggests a few questions senators could usefully ask as the confirmation process gets underway this week:

How specifically will Messrs. Kerry and Hagel balance engagement with China against ensuring stability in territorial disputes in Asia? Is Beijing still a potential partner for the U.S., or is it increasingly a competitor?

Mr. Hagel in particular could be questioned about whether he still believes that isolating North Korea is the "last thing" America should do, as he said in a 2003 interview on PBS. Both should be pressed on whether they believe continued negotiations with a regime that has never shown good faith is the appropriate way to preserve peace in Northeast Asia.

And finally, how would Messrs. Kerry and Hagel maintain America's commitments in Asia—and elsewhere—while supporting deep budget cuts? Come to think of it, that's a good question for the president who nominated them, too.

Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.

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