John Kerry outlines US-Asia pivot priorities in major policy address

US Secretary of State says four priorities are economic growth, energy, regional cooperation and human rights

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 9:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 5:21pm

United States Secretary of State John Kerry pledged stronger engagement with Asia in a major policy speech in Hawaii on Thursday.

“We are in this in the long haul,” Kerry said, outlining the priorities of President Barack Obama’s administration in the Asia Pacific region over its remaining two-and-a half years in office. The US would continue to pursue its interests and values in the region “without arrogance but also without apology”.

Kerry outlined four priorities in the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy: economic growth, energy, regional cooperation and human rights.

Recalling his family’s own history as traders in China, Kerry made a plea to the countries in the region to carry forward the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement. “We can’t take growth for granted,” he told an audience of local dignitaries in Hawaii. “We must get this done.”

Kerry also warned of growing regional competition with China, the world’s second-largest economy. “The president has been clear, as have I, that we are committed to avoiding the trap of strategic rivalry [with China],” he said. “We are busy trying to define a new great power relationship.”

“This constructive relationship, this new model relationship of great powers, is not going to happen by simply talking about it,” he said.

Amid simmering territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, Kerry called on China and other claimants to find peaceful solutions and not to impede freedom of navigation in disputed waters.

“We firmly oppose any suggestion that [any rights of navigation] are privileges granted by a big state to a small one,” he said, praising the Philippines for its attempt to try to settle its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea in an international court. China has rejected the Philippine proposal of arbitration.

Kerry also said the US would revitalise its security agreements with its traditional allies in the region, naming Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Australia. He said he would meet with Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of the US Pacific Command, to review US military presence in the region.

The former senator from Massachusetts singled out climate change as one field where cooperation could not only distract from territorial disputes, but also cater to US economic interests. “The solution to climate change is simple, it’s called energy policy,” he said. “The new energy market that we are looking at is the biggest market the world has ever seen.”

Kerry also said the Obama administration would make human rights another priority of its remaining time in office, noting that the region had witnessed some setbacks in recent months. He condemned the coup in Thailand, a major military ally of the US in the region, and called on Myanmar’s government to prepare the ground for fair elections next year.

He praised Indonesia for its presidential election, calling it a model blend of Asian values and democracy. “We will continue to promote human rights and democracy in Asia, without arrogance but also without apology.”

Kerry failed to offer concrete solutions to the territorial disputes in Asia, said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute and former senior official with Australia’s Department of Defence.

“Countries will be a little disappointed that after the secretary’s six visits to the region, US policy seems to be still largely aspirational but lacking detail on how to achieve these aims,” said Jennings. 

Kerry made his remarks at the East-West Centre, a think tank established by the US Congress in 1960 to improve the superpower’s ties with Asia.

American diplomats often stop over in Hawaii, headquarters of the US military’s Pacific Command, on their way to and from the region.

Kerry’s speech concluded an eight-day whirlwind tour of Asia, his sixth visit to the region in his eighteen months in office.

He made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan and attended a regional meeting of foreign ministers in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw over the weekend. He also visited Australia and the Solomon Islands.

In Myanmar, Kerry had urged China and regional rival claimants over parts of the South China Sea to exercise restraint. “Intimidation, coercion, or use of force by any one of the claimants – these actions by anybody – are unacceptable,” he told regional foreign ministers on Sunday in remarks he reiterated again in his policy speech on Thursday. “We oppose any efforts to restrict – or impede – freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, or other lawful uses of the seas by any party.”

In Naypyidaw, he also met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, who rejected Kerry’s comments on the territorial dispute. “Some countries out of the region are … upset and eager to play up tensions,” Wang said, according to a statement released by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Are they intended to cause chaos in this region?” Wang said.

Kerry’s predecessor Hillary Clinton last spoke at the East-West Centre during the Apec summit in November 2011. Kerry is set to return to Washington on Thursday.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing and the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw in the autumn.