China Welcomes Kerry’s Unease Over Pivot

At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed caution over the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to East Asia, warning that it risked unnecessarily antagonizing a wary China. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Elizabeth Economy argues that this was a mistake:

Secretary Kerry’s apparent unease with the pivot has unsurprisingly set the Chinese press all atwitter and given Chinese analysts some hope that President Obama has appointed a kinder, gentler Secretary of State. The major Chinese state-supported newspapers—the Global Times, People’s Daily, and Xinhua—highlighted his remarks on the pivot and then offered some thoughts on Kerry’s likely diplomatic approach [….]

[…] By suggesting that the pivot may be out of favor, Secretary Kerry has also drawn into question U.S. credibility. Officials and analysts abroad have already raised doubts about U.S. staying power in the Asia Pacific; Secretary Kerry’s doubts will only add fuel to the fire.

[…] Secretary Kerry understandably wants to make his mark on U.S. foreign policy over the next few years, and he appears to be setting himself a challenging agenda, including making progress on a free trade agreement with Europe and restarting the Middle East peace talks. However, the original logic of the pivot—ensuring security in the Asia Pacific and taking advantage of the region’s economic dynamism through a free trade agreement—still stands. It’s too early to pivot away.

Max Fisher adds, at The Washington Post:

Kerry’s balancing act, as he seems to see it, is about how to engage in Asia without unduly upsetting China and damaging the important (and sometimes-tenuous) U.S.-China relationship. It looks like Kerry might be erring a little more on the side of preserving friendly U.S.-China relations than Hillary Clinton did as secretary of state, when she cultivated close ties with Southeast Asian states, often to Beijing’s outrage. That doesn’t mean that Kerry is giving up on Asia, of course, but it suggests a different set of priorities there, more about maintaining a positive status quo than trying to assert a new dynamic.

If a goal of Kerry’s pivot-away-from-the-pivot is to improve ties with China, it looks like that plan might already be succeeding. But if it’s just about Kerry having more interest in the Middle East, where he has deeper experience, then that could be China’s gain.

In a forum on China’s leadership transition at the CFR last week, the Brookings Institution’s Cheng Li noted other reasons that the Chinese might welcome Kerry. Elizabeth Economy and Edward Luttwack of the Center for Strategic and International Studies also participated in the discussion, which was chaired by Bloomberg News’ Thomas Keene.

KEENE: Do you see a cohesiveness from Secretary Clinton over to Secretary Kerry or would you guess that there will be changes?

LI: Well, during Hillary Clinton’s four years, we all see — also see a lot of changes. Early on, the Chinese loved her, but later become more critical for the reasons maybe justified, maybe not justified, but certainly they are excited about John Kerry, because John Kerry himself cultivated very good relationships with both Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, based on my knowledge. So it’s a good beginning. I hope that in a very critical moment that the United States will establish a very solid relationship with Chinese leaders, but also more articulate to the Chinese public, the Chinese public intellectuals about our position, about our policies towards China and a regional stability in the Asia Pacific.

See more advice for Kerry via CDT.