Senator Kerry off to right start

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2013, 1:42am


Even before being confirmed in his new role, the likely next US Secretary of State got international attention with his views on two defining policy issues - ties with China and Washington's strategic pivot back towards Asia and the Pacific. Senator John Kerry told his confirmation hearing before the powerful senate foreign relations committee that he backs closer ties with China and is not convinced the US needs to increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Coming from a former chairman of the committee with wide congressional experience in foreign affairs, these sentiments are welcome. The relationship between Washington and Beijing is the most important in the world. The two sides manage tensions over trade and currency issues with robust dialogue. This can be expected to continue with China's economic rise as the US struggles with debt and economic woes. But the shift in American diplomatic and military focus back to Asia has given rise to suspicions about an attempt at containment of Chinese power and influence. Such concerns are unhelpful to development of the bilateral relationship.

How Kerry manages them will be watched closely throughout the region. If his answer to a pertinent question during the confirmation hearing is any guide, he feels no sense of urgency in implementing the increased military build-up. Asked how the US could ramp up its military presence without being sucked into territorial disputes between China and its neighbours, he said he wanted to look at the build-up carefully, given that "we have a lot more forces out there than any other [nation] in the world, including China".

He said it was critical to strengthen the Sino-US relationship, and hoped to work more closely with China's new leaders on a broad range of issues, including North Korea and climate change. A good start would be to lay the groundwork for an early summit between President Barack Obama and new Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping , who takes over as president of China in less than two months.

The five-term senator and 2004 Democrat presidential nominee rightly said America's world leadership depended on congress putting the country's economic house in order. His credibility as a diplomat rested on this. He was, of course, putting in a word for his boss, who is locked in a struggle with congress over the need to raise the national debt ceiling, and measures to bring the debt down. But he is right all the same.