(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly is giving assurances during his Asia trip about the administration’s commitment to the region, but the State Department’s internal watchdog has been critical of how the “rebalance” is being implemented.
Kerry is standing in for President Obama at a series of multilateral and bilateral meetings in Southeast Asia this week, and he is getting questions about the much-touted policy, dubbed the Asia “pivot” when first announced in 2011.
Obama canceled the long-scheduled trip to deal with the government “shutdown,” leaving Kerry and others in his department to stress that his absence did not signal a backing away from the policy.
“There’s been a lot of speculation in the press about the fact that the president wasn’t able to go, that maybe this shows that we’re losing our influence in Asia,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Tuesday. “I, quite frankly, think that kind of analysis is pretty intellectually lazy.”
“I think it’s been clear over the past four years how committed this administration is to our role in the Pacific. If you look at exports, if you look at a lot of different measures, we’ve been very active in that region, and I think you see Secretary Kerry there talking about how we will continue to be going forward.”
However, the State Department’s Office of Inspector-General (OIG) found in a recent review that the administration has not put additional funding nor staffing in place to carry out its “highly publicized pivot or rebalance toward Asia.”
While the administration has increased American engagement with regional institutions, it said, the “rebalance toward Asia has not been matched by additional financial or human resources.”
The report noted that foreign assistance to the region in fiscal year 2013 is 19 percent below the peak level in FY 2010.
It found that the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) – the focus of the OIG evaluation – was “inadequately staffed and not well structured” to achieve a top priority objective of strengthening and shaping Asia’s regional institutions.
“The Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs is not well structured to support its key policy goals of strengthening regional institutions and advancing economic engagement and trade,” it said. “The bureau should adjust its organizational structure to match its priorities.”
“The bureau’s success is due to the creativity of its employees and their willingness to work unsustainably long hours to support five ministerial and two summit-level meetings annually, as well as dozens of lower-level meetings. This workload is increasing.”
“Working-level staffing has not increased to match workloads; more than 20 percent of staff is nonpermanent,” it said, but also observed that “[d]espite frustration over long hours, morale is high.”
The OIG commented on the fact the bureau’s top post was not occupied. The post of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs had been vacant since Kurt Campbell stepped down in early February, and when the OIG was carrying out its inspection his successor had been nominated but not yet confirmed. Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel is now in place.
As an example of the consequences of staffing shortages, the OIG noted that when Obama, in a major policy move, announced that U.S. Marines would begin six-month deployments in northern Australia, the bureau was ill-positioned to deal with regional fallout.
“The long-standing U.S.-Australia alliance acquired a new operational element in 2012 with the announced rotational deployment of U.S. Marines to Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia, one of the most visible elements of the rebalance,” the report stated. “This measure enhanced ties with a valuable ally but drew unfortunate reactions from some other countries, in part because EAP’s preparations for the announcement did not adequately consider PD [public diplomacy] aspects in the broader region.”
“All of these efforts were spearheaded by the geographic offices, with little involvement from RSP [the bureau’s office responsible for regional security and policy] due to its inadequate staffing.”
The report did not elaborate on the “unfortunate reactions,” but China and Indonesia were among those who reacted coolly to the announcement of the first new, long-term deployment of U.S. troops to Asia in decades.
‘A top priority’
Kerry’s multilateral diplomacy began last weekend in Bali, Indonesia, where he attended the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and participated in talks on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade zone. It was the second year in a row Obama had missed the APEC summit, a gathering American presidents have attended without fail since 1998.
Kerry – whose own commitment to the “pivot” was questioned over the summer as he focused on Mideast issues – told reporters in Bali several times that Obama’s absence should not be misconstrued.
“None of what is happening in Washington diminishes one iota our commitment to our partners in Asia, including our efforts to promote trade and investment throughout the region,” he said.
“Nothing will diminish our commitment to Asia, the rebalance that President Obama’s engaged in.”
“The relationship between the United States and the Asia Pacific has really never been more important than it is now. President Obama began a rebalance to this region in the course of his first four years, and we intend to continue that over the course of his second term.”
Kerry noted that his trip, which began in Japan and will end after the multilateral events with visits to Malaysia and the Philippines, will keep him in the region for almost two weeks.
“So I think that is a significant statement about the United States presence, about the president’s commitment – and I am absolutely confident that when we get this moment of political silliness behind us, we will be back on track.”
On Wednesday in Brunei, at the opening of a summit between the U.S. and the 10 countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the subject came up again.
“I assure you that these events in Washington are a moment in politics and not more than that,” Kerry said.
“The partnership that we share with ASEAN remains a top priority for the Obama administration,” he continued, adding that the Asia “rebalance is a commitment, it is there to stay, and will continue into the future.”
A senior State Department official in a background briefing challenged the notion that the canceled trip had prompted serious dismay.
“In the secretary’s engagements, in statements made in the sessions, and in what we heard from delegation members below the heads level, there was a universal understanding of the president’s decision not to come,” the official said.
APEC: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.
ASEAN: Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Trans-Pacific Partnership: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.