For an illustration of Secretary of State John Kerry's commitment to Asia -- or lack thereof -- look no further than his travel schedule. On July 1, he arrived in the tiny nation of Brunei for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, an annual multilateral dialogue. In the weeks prior, Kerry canceled inaugural stops in Indonesia and Vietnam so he could return to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel for the second, third, and fourth time as secretary, respectively. Then, instead of holding important meetings with Asian allies and partners in Brunei on the evening of June 30 and morning of July 1 as originally scheduled, Kerry decided to stay an extra day in Israel. This disregard for U.S. interests in Asia is unacceptable.
Kerry's agenda at the State Department has been dominated by crises in Syria, Iran, and the Arab world -- at the expense of Asia. In diplomacy you vote with your feet, and since taking office in February, all but one of Kerry's overseas trips have included a visit to either Europe or the Middle East. Before Brunei, his lone venture to East Asia came in April. According to people familiar with the matter, he piqued the Chinese with Saturday meetings and initially planned to cram his stop in Japan -- one of America's most important allies -- into a Sunday afternoon. (He ended up allowing Tokyo part of a Monday as well.) Four days after returning to Washington, Kerry was back on a plane to Turkey for meetings with the Syrian opposition.
Yes, Kerry's personal commitment to Syria, attention to Iran, and efforts to kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are commendable. But diplomats and policymakers in Washington and throughout Asia are beginning to doubt Kerry's dedication to the principal foreign-policy innovation of President Barack Obama's first term: the rebalancing, or "pivot," of U.S. attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region after more than a decade of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Even before Kerry was nominated to be secretary of state in December, there was already widespread concern in Asia that the new leadership in the State Department would shift its focus away from the region.
Asian officials and scholars visiting Washington over the last year have all been asking the same question: Will the pivot endure into Obama 2.0? A Southeast Asian ambassador to the United States told me recently that there was "a lot of anxiety" among his colleagues about the current State Department's commitment to the region. By giving short shrift to Asia since taking office, Kerry has done little to reassure them.