US Secretary of State John Kerry is focusing this week on reinvigorating the Obama administration’s effort to "pivot" towards Asia following last week's first-stage implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal.
Mr. Kerry arrived in Laos on Sunday at the start a four-day trip that includes stops in Cambodia and China. During his whirlwind tour, he is expected to press China on its relations with North Korea and to urge Southeast Asia to show unity in response to Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Tensions in the Middle East – from Iran’s nuclear program to the conflict in Syria – absorbed much of Kerry’s attention during his first three years as the top US diplomat. In what is likely to be his final year, analysts are wondering whether he will pick up in Asia where his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, left off.
Ms. Clinton made the "rebalancing" of America's focus and resources toward a rising Asia a top priority during her four years as secretary of state. While Kerry has promised to push ahead with the so-called “Asia pivot,” until now it has appeared to come second to his efforts in the Middle East.
This week’s trip could signal a shift in focus. At the top of Kerry's agenda will be getting Beijing to step up pressure on Pyongyang in response to North Korea’s nuclear test earlier this month, a senior State Department official told the Wall Street Journal.
Asked at a press conference last week if the US lost its focus on North Korea because of challenges in other regions, Kerry said “North Korea has never been left unattended to, not for one day,” reports Voice of America.
But Michael O’Hanlon, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who specializes in national security and defense policy, contends that the Obama administration has taken a “hands-off approach” to the North Korean nuclear threat.
“I do not believe that strategy to be working very well,” Mr. O’Hanlon wrote in a blog post last week, “but in fairness, it is not clear that another strategy would do better.”
In Beijing this week, Kerry is expected to try a new tact. He has cited North Korea’s Jan. 6 nuclear test as proof that China has not done enough to curb the government it has fitfully supported for six decades.
“We cannot continue business as usual,” he said earlier this month.
The US and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea, say their new plan is to boost sanctions and go on the defensive against North Korea if China fails to do more, The New York Times reports:
President Park Geun-hye of South Korea said her country would consider agreeing to the United States’ deployment of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, missile system in South Korea to cope better with the North’s growing nuclear and missile threats.
China has vehemently opposed a Thaad deployment in South Korea, saying it would constitute a threat to its security. Secondary sanctions against North Korea, if put in place, would also affect China the most, because most of the North’s external trade is with China or goes through the country.
Kerry plans to argue for a tough unilateral response from China when he meets with the country’s top officials on Wednesday, a senior US diplomat told Reuters. He will also stress the need for a united front in response to North Korea’s nuclear test through additional UN sanctions.
It is particularly important to "cut off avenues of proliferation and retard North Korea's ability to gain the wherewithal to advance its nuclear and its missile programs," the diplomat said.
"Despite the determination and efforts of the Chinese government, clearly there is more that they can do.”