Asia's importance is so obvious it barely needs stating. It is home to more than half the world's population, several important U.S. allies, the world's largest democracy, two of the three largest economies, and the most populous Muslim-majority nation. No region is more crucial than Asia in revitalizing the U.S. economy, while a nuclear North Korea and a rising China present challenges that demand Washington's attention.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is faithfully executing the president's policy on Asia by strengthening ties with allies, building deeper relationships with new partners like Vietnam and Burma, and maintaining a robust bilateral and multilateral engagement calendar. The State Department should be complementing the powerful U.S. military presence in the region with economic, diplomatic, and cultural dimensions. But Kerry's inattention to Asia means that the rebalance's most prominent player is the U.S. military. As a result, the United States runs the risk of overplaying its hand on security issues, provoking China and alienating emerging partners who do not want to be seen as picking sides in the region.
The answer is not for the Defense Department to slow down, but for Foggy Bottom to catch up. Yes, filling key vacancies like the post of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, open since the influential Kurt Campbell left in February, will ameliorate Kerry's Asian attention deficit. But unless the secretary himself is seen as personally committed to the region, U.S. diplomats in Asia (not to mention those on the 7th floor) will have a difficult time making the case that they represent the leadership and will of the State Department.
Asian officials need to remind Kerry and top State Department brass that, in diplomacy, showing up is half the battle and that the U.S. absence is having both immediate and long-term implications for U.S. interests. The time for diplomatic courtesy has passed.
It is too early to tell if Kerry's stopover in Brunei will assuage concerns. That his first bilateral meeting in Brunei was with the European Union's foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, presumably to discuss Syria and Iran, was not helpful. A longer and more robust trip to Asia, instead of parachuting in and out of multilateral meetings between stops in the Middle East, would be a good start. On July 1 in Brunei, responding to a question that his actions seem to indicate a policy shift in the State Department toward the Middle East and Europe, Kerry said "I look forward to being back here and back here and back here. And we'll get to know each other pretty well, I hope." That sounds well and good, but Kerry has to follow through. A pivot this big and important doesn't turn on hope alone.