John Kerry's familiarity in Asia - a plus, or a minus?

Greg Torode says if John Kerry is confirmed as US secretary of state, one of his first tests will be to balance ties with China and the region

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2012, 2:03am

The prospect of failed US presidential candidate John Kerry becoming the next US secretary of state throws up a number of intriguing questions for the East Asian region. One of the key ones is: will familiarity breed contempt?

The veteran senator from Massachusetts has, in large part, defined himself by his years on the Senate's foreign relations committee. He has travelled widely, met key players and has a smooth grasp of the strategic issues, from North Korea's nuclear programme to the Hong Kong handover.

If confirmed as expected, he will take over from Hillary Rodham Clinton. Kerry is arguably a more known quantity in Asia than any of the secretaries so far. UN Ambassador Susan Rice, the early front runner before pulling out under pressure, would have had the advantage of the unknown.

A touch of mystery, of course, can be a useful tool in diplomacy. Just look at the way an uncertain region is wary of pushing China's new leadership too hard, afraid to box in Beijing as it emerges from a testing transitional year.

Kerry has forged a reputation as an intelligent pro-engagement pragmatist. He backed the congressional push behind China's landmark entry into the World Trade Organisation and was a key early driver in Washington's normalisation of ties with its old enemy, Vietnam.

And how he juggles Obama's priorities of boosting ties with both Beijing and a wary region at the same time will be a key early test of his skills. Kerry will have to make the most of his access to Obama, not to mention his "intangibles" - the air of gravitas and stature he still enjoys despite his loss to a weakened George W. Bush in 2004.

It is one thing to travel widely as a US senator and quite another as secretary of state, when at times he will have to carry Washington's big stick.

His relationship with Obama will be closely watched. While not part of his president's inner-circle, as Rice was, he is close enough to have played Mitt Romney in Obama's preparation ahead of his first bungled debate in October.

That leads us to one of Kerry's certainties. The man can be long winded, as Obama reportedly noted during their warm-ups. "It is not so much he lectures or hectors you," said one East Asian government official with experience of Kerry's charms. "It is that he does rather like the sound of his own voice … he can be a little grandiose, and won't take five minutes if he has got half an hour."

Beijing envoys were among those perplexed after one such flight of fancy during the senate hearing to confirm Bush's ambassador to Beijing, Clark Randt, back in 2001. Kerry, then the acting chairman of the foreign relations committee, decided that China's Communist Party wasn't communist any more. At length, he explained that, while authoritarian, it should not be seen through the red prism under which Republican senator Jesse Helms' had long branded Beijing "communist dictators".

Glowering, Helms waited out the monologue and noted: "Well, Mr Chairman, you can call it what you want … but a duck is still a duck."

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.