Kerry not sure of need for military build-up in Asia

Senator set to be the new US secretary of state urges ‘fresh thinking’ and says he would seek to broaden America’s relationship with China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 January, 2013, 3:20am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 January, 2013, 6:17am

Senator John Kerry, the nominee to be America’s top diplomat, backs closer ties with China and is not convinced the US needs to increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Speaking at his confirmation hearing to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, Kerry called for “fresh thinking” on Thursday as he outlined his foreign policy agenda and plans for relations with China, Iran and the Middle East.

The Obama administration has made a stronger presence in Asia a priority – a move welcomed by nations in the region unnerved by China’s growing power and assertiveness, but which has angered Beijing.

Kerry was asked how the US could ramp up its military presence without being sucked into territorial disputes between China and its neighbours that have raised tensions in East Asia. His response sounded like a departure from the policy of the Obama administration.

“I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet,” Kerry said. “That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully.

“We have a lot more forces out there than any other [nation] in the world, including China, today,” he said, noting the president’s additional deployment of marines to Australia over the past year. “You know, the Chinese look at that and say, ‘What’s the United States doing? They trying to circle us? What’s going on?’”

But Kerry added that vigilance over China’s intentions was still required and he was not suggesting retreating from “current levels”.

He said it was critical to strengthen the US relationship with China, as the administration has sought to do.

He said it would be a “tough slog” given the significant differences between Washington and Beijing, including on economic issues such as market access and currency value.

But he hoped to work more closely with China’s new leaders on a broad range of issues, including North Korea and climate change.

“My hope is that [Communist Party leader] Xi Jinping and the new administration will recognise also the need to sort of broaden the relationship with us,” he said.

Kerry also urged Congress to fix the US economy to ensure America’s role as a world leader. 

The five-term US senator and Vietnam war veteran, who was the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, said the “first priority” in protecting his credibility as a diplomat was the country’s ability to get its fiscal house in order.

“Foreign policy is economic policy,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he has chaired for the past four years.

“It is urgent we show people in the rest of the world that we can get our business done in an effective and timely way.”

On the subject of Iran, Kerry stressed his commitment to Obama’s policy of seeking a diplomatic solution to persuade Tehran to give up its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Tehran says its programme is solely for peaceful purposes.

“He [Obama] and I prefer a diplomatic resolution to this challenge and I will work to give diplomacy every effort to succeed,” Kerry said. “But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat.”

Associated Press, Reuters