Kerry Focusing on Mideast and Europe, Not Asia, on First Trip As Secretary of State

February 20, 2013 - 5:58 AM

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Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to reporters during a news conference with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2103, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

(CNSNews.com) – Announcing Secretary of State John Kerry’s first trip abroad in his new role, a ten-day visit to the Middle East and Europe, the State Department on Tuesday played down concerns that the administration’s much-touted “pivot” to Asia is now on the back-burner.

Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Kerry would visit Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar on a Feb. 24-Mar. 6 trip which, she said, he was characterizing “more broadly as a listening tour.”

Among a range of topics on the agenda will be the crises in Syria and Mali, political and economic issues in Egypt, and “Middle East peace.”

Despite the latter, Kerry will not include visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories, since “government coalition negotiations in Israel are still underway,” Nuland said. He will accompany President Obama when Obama visits Jerusalem and Ramallah next month.

Hillary Clinton’s first trip abroad as secretary of state, in February 2009, focused on Asia, with stops in Japan, China, South Korea and Indonesia.

On a subsequent trip to the region, she delivered a speech entitled “America’s Pacific Century,” in which she declared the Asia-Pacific would be “the world’s strategic and economic center of gravity” in the 21st century.

Throughout the second half of President Obama’s first term, the administration emphasized the importance of its Asia “pivot.” Clinton traveled to the region numerous times and Obama also visited, attending the East Asia Summit in Indonesia in 2011 and in Cambodia last year.

Obama also added Washington’s weight to an expanding Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative, first hammered out between Chile, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei in 2006.

Despite those moves, some Asian observers and Asia-Pacific analysts in the U.S. began questioning the administration’s commitment to the policy, especially as the so-called “Arab spring” upheavals increasingly focused its attention on the Middle East and North Africa.

Last September Obama skipped an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit – the first time an American president had missed the annual APEC gathering since 1998.

Asked Tuesday about Kerry’s choice of destinations on this first trip in the light of the declared Asia policy, Nuland replied, “I think, were we to add any more stops on this first trip, an already long excursion would be even longer.”

“I think you can certainly expect that Secretary Kerry will visit Asia early in his tenure,” she added.

Nuland said Kerry has spoken about challenges the U.S. is confronting, including “the challenge from extremists seeking to hijack some of the Arab Spring revolutions that we’ve had.”

“And I think he’s very committed to having good conversations, both with European allies and partners, but also with Middle Eastern partners on how we are approaching that whole complex of issues from Libya to Tunisia to Egypt to Syria, the combined challenge of Iran, all of those things,” she said. “So I think you’ll hear all of those themes come up on this trip.”

In his early public appearances with foreign visitors to the State Department Kerry has focused mostly on issues relating to the Middle East, including Iran, Syria and the Mideast peace process.

Even when asked, during a joint appearance with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh on February 13, about North Korea’s nuclear test a day earlier, much of his answer focused on how it was linked the broader proliferation issue, and Iran in particular.

Kerry’s visit begins in London, where Nuland said he would “discuss a range of bilateral and global issues on which we coordinate closely” before traveling to Berlin, where he will hold bilateral meetings and “exchange views with German young people on the state of European-American relations.”

“And his visit to Berlin will also be an opportunity for him to reconnect with the city in which he lived as a child,” she added. Kerry’s late father, Richard, served as a foreign service officer.

He will then visit Paris, where “international support for Mali will be a central subject” in his talks. In Rome he will hold bilateral meetings and a multilateral meeting with European allies. There will also be a get together with leaders of the anti-Assad Syrian Opposition Coalition, which Obama last December recognized as the sole “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

Kerry will next visit Ankara, Turkey, to discuss various issues including the Syrian crisis and counterterrorism cooperation.

In Cairo, he will hold talks with Arab League head Nabil Al-Arabi, and meet with government officials, civil society leaders and business representatives. “Among the themes will be encouraging greater political consensus and moving forward on economic reforms,” Nuland said.

At his last three stops, Kerry will meet senior leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha, where agenda topics will include Syria, Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process.