Kerry Assures Asia He’s Not Overly Preoccupied with the Middle East

By Patrick Goodenough | July 2, 2013 | 4:20 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry arrives for a press conference in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei on Monday, July 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

( – Although he has visited Israel five times since March and has made no secret of his determination to push the Palestinian peace track ahead, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed surprise when asked in Southeast Asia Monday about the focus on the Middle East in the light of the administration’s previously-touted “pivot” to Asia.

“I have no idea what policy shift you might be referring to,” he said in reply to a question from a Bruneian journalist. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There is no policy shift. I’m here.”

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“Here” was Bandar Seri Begawan, capital of the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, where Kerry is attending various Association of South-East Asian (ASEAN) events through Tuesday.

Kerry arrived there – one day later than originally scheduled – from Israel, where he had spent several days shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian Authority (P.A.) leaders, including discussions that ran into the early hours of the morning.

When he left the region, he left staff in Jerusalem to continue the push for direct Israeli-P.A. talks, and said he would return soon to finalize the initiative.

Just moments before the Bruneian reporter’s question, Kerry had admitted to another questioner that he had not heard or seen any reports about European Union outrage over alleged U.S. bugging of E.U. premises, because he has been “so deeply immersed in the work on the Middle East in the last days.”

Since the interim Oslo accords were signed in the early 1990s, achieving a negotiated final settlement between the Israelis and P.A. has eluded Kerry’s five predecessors at the State Department and the presidents they served under. Nonetheless, he has expressed optimism – as some of them did during their terms – that a breakthrough is possible on his watch.

Kerry’s absorption with the issue has been evident for months; he periodically tells reporters that the focus is justified since he has heard from counterparts as far afield as New Zealand and Brazil about the importance of what he says is clearly a “global concern.” He repeated that anecdote during Monday’s press appearance, adding the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Japan and South Korea to the list of those who have raised the subject with him.

Even as Kerry assured the journalist in Brunei that Asia would “see an energized and serious engagement” during the rest of the Obama presidency, he also acknowledged that his plans to visit some Asian countries on this trip had to be postponed “because of the efforts in the Middle East peace process.”

When he addressed a U.S.-ASEAN ministerial meeting earlier in the day, Kerry also challenged the notion that engagement with the region will take a back seat.

“Let me be crystal clear: I know that some people have wondered whether in the second term of the Obama administration and with a new secretary of state, are we going to continue on the path that we have been on?” he said.

“And the answer, I say to all of you directly, is yes. Not just yes, but we hope to increase the effort.”

Still, Kerry’s approach has marked a clear shift from that of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who made Asia her first destination after taking office, visiting Japan, China, South Korea and Indonesia.

“I want to send a very clear message that the United States is back, that we are fully engaged and committed to our relationships in Southeast Asia, that we want to resume and strengthen our very strong alliances and friendships,” Clinton said during a trip to Thailand several months later.

Then in an essay and policy speech in 2011, Clinton spoke of the need to “pivot to new global realities” as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, predicting that Asia would be “the world’s strategic and economic center of gravity” this century.

The “pivot” term stuck, and Clinton worked through the end of her term to strengthen relationships across the region. While she frequently denied that the effort was aimed at countering Chinese influence, that’s how it was interpreted by many officials and commentators in the ASEAN countries – and in Beijing, too.

During his confirmation hearing early this year, Kerry expressed unease with the term “pivot.”

“I think ‘pivot’ implies that we’re turning away from somewhere else,” he said. “I want to emphasize, we’re not turning away from anywhere else. Whatever we do in [the Asia-Pacific] should not come, and I hope will not come, at the expense of relationships in Europe or in the Mideast or elsewhere.”

Kerry’s first trip after confirmation was to Europe and the Middle East, and since then he has visited Israel five times while six trips have included stops in Europe.

By contrast he traveled just once to Asia before now, as part of a trip last April that also included stops in Turkey, Israel and Britain.

Even his current visit to Brunei is not solely focused on Asia. On Tuesday, Kerry met for more than an hour with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, and then later with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for an even longer period. The crisis in Syria topped the agenda for both meetings.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow