Kerry Reaffirms ‘Ambitious Agenda’ of U.S. Engagement in Asia and the Pacific

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a speech at the East-West Center on Wednesday confirming that, in the 21st century, United States foreign policy would be increasingly directed at the Asia-Pacific region.

Will Caron

From the East-West Wire:

HONOLULU (Aug. 14, 2014)—Outlining what he termed the United States’ “ambitious agenda” of long-term engagement in Asia and the Pacific, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday in a policy speech at the East-West Center in Honolulu that complex challenges such as climate change and maritime territorial disputes can be transformed into opportunities for such advances as clean energy development and regional cooperation.

“We know that America’s security and prosperity are closely and increasingly linked to the Asia Pacific,” Kerry said. “That’s why President Obama began what is known as the rebalance to Asia in 2009, and that’s why he’s asked me to redouble my own efforts in the region.”

(Watch video or read a transcript of Kerry’s speech.)

Speaking at the conclusion of his sixth trip to the Asia Pacific region as secretary, Kerry focused his remarks on four challenges in particular: fostering sustainable economic growth, transforming the climate change crisis into a clean energy “revolution,” turning territorial conflicts into regional cooperation and empowering individuals through gains in human rights and political freedom.

“These important opportunities can and should be realized through a stable, rules-based regional order built on norms of behavior that are reinforced by institutions,” Kerry said.

In terms of economic growth, Kerry focused on negotiations over the sweeping, 12-nation Tans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, or TPP. Negotiators had hoped to conclude a TPP agreement a number of months ago, but progress on the complex pact has slowed since then.

“When the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations are complete, about 40 percent of global GDP will be linked by a high-standard trade agreement that creates a race to the top,” Kerry said, “where people understand the rules of engagement and there’s accountability and transparency.”  He said the TPP is a “state-of-the-art, 21st century trade agreement, and it is consistent not just with our shared economic interests, but also with our shared values. It’s about generating growth for our economies and jobs for our people by unleashing a wave of trade, investment, and entrepreneurship.”

Noting that he had just completed a visit to the Solomon Islands, where some areas are facing inundation due to sea level rise, Kerry emphasized that the effects of climate change are already occurring, and that the response has to be “all hands on deck. By definition, rescuing the planet’s climate is a global challenge that requires a global solution.”

Kerry said the solution is simple: clean energy development, which he said is already the fastest-growing segment of a global energy market that is “the biggest market the world has ever seen.”

Acknowledging that much of the challenge rests with the world’s two biggest carbon emitters, the United States and China, Kerry said that during their recent annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, “we and China together sent a clear message: The world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters are committed to advancing a low-carbon economic growth pattern and significantly reduce our countries’ greenhouse gases.” He said the two countries are working together to launch demonstration projects on carbon capture, adopting stronger fuel efficiency standards and advancing a new initiative on deforestation and climate change.

He said the U.S. is also deepening partnerships with the Pacific islands and working through USAID and other multilateral institutions to increase the resilience of island communities. “We’re elevating our engagement through the Pacific Islands Forum, and we’ve signed new maritime boundaries with Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia in order to promote good governance of the Pacific Ocean and peaceful relations among island nations,” Kerry said, adding that the U.S. is working on a “Pacific Pathway” of marine protected areas, including President Obama’s recent commitment to explore a protected area of more than a million square miles in the remote Pacific.

Turning to perhaps the most contentious issue in the region – territorial disputes between China and several other nations over small islands in the South and East China Sea, Kerry said the challenge is “to turn maritime conflicts into regional cooperation.”

“These disputes are really about more than claims to islands and reefs and rocks and the economic interests that flow from them,” he said. “They’re about whether might makes right, or whether global rules and norms and rule of law and international law will prevail.”

Kerry said he wanted to be “absolutely clear: The United States of America takes no position on questions of sovereignty in the South and East China Sea, but we do care about how those questions are resolved. … We firmly oppose the use of intimidation and coercion or force to assert a territorial claim by anyone in the region. And we firmly oppose any suggestion that freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea and airspace are privileges granted by a big state to a small one.”

Kerry pointed to a recent settlement of a 20-year maritime boundary disagreement between Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as a fishing agreement last year between Japan and Taiwan, as examples of how these disputes can be resolved through good-faith negotiations. He also said that the U.S. supports steps by the Philippines to resolve its maritime dispute with China peacefully, including through the right to pursue arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Admitting that the U.S. itself has yet to ratify the convention, although it already follows its principles, Kerry said the United States “needs to finish the job and pass that treaty once and for all.”

A key element in maintaining regional peace and stability, Kerry acknowledged, is a “constructive” relationship between the U.S. and China. “President Obama has made it clear that the United States welcomes the rise of a peaceful, prosperous and stable China – one that plays a responsible role in Asia and the world and supports rules and norms on economic and security issues,” he said. “The President has been clear, as have I, that we are committed to avoiding the trap of strategic rivalry.”

However, he said, this “new model” relationship of great powers is “not going to happen simply by talking about it. It’s not going to happen by engaging in a slogan or pursuing a sphere of influence. It will be defined by more and better cooperation on shared challenges. And it will be defined by a mutual embrace of the rules, the norms, and institutions that have served both of our nations and the region so well.”

Kerry said he is pleased that China and the U.S. are cooperating on the Iran nuclear talks, have increased their dialog on North Korea and are also “cooperating significantly on climate change possibilities, counter-piracy operations and South Sudan.”

He reiterated the administration’s commitment to elevating engagement with Asia through multilateral institutions like the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC; the East Asia Summit; the ASEAN Regional Forum and others, while “revitalizing“ security partnerships with longtime treaty allies Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines.

Addressing the final challenge on his list, Kerry said the U.S. also hopes to help “turn human rights problems into opportunities for human empowerment.”

“We all know that some countries in the region hold different views on democratic governance and the protection of human rights,” Kerry said. “But though we may sometimes disagree on these issues with the governments, I don’t think we have any fundamental disagreement with their people.

“Given a choice, I don’t think too many young people in China would choose to have less access to uncensored information, rather than more. I don’t think too many people in Vietnam would say: ‘I’d rather not be allowed to organize and speak out for better working conditions or a healthy environment.’ And I can’t imagine that anyone in Asia would watch more than 130 million people go to the polls in Indonesia to choose a president after a healthy, vigorous and peaceful debate and then say: ‘I don’t want that right for myself.’”

North Korea’s nuclear weapons activities, he said, “pose a very serious threat to the United States, the region, and the world, and we are taking steps to deter and defend against North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear-armed ballistic missile capability. But make no mistake: We are also speaking out about the horrific human rights situation. … North Korea’s gulags should be shut down – not tomorrow, not next week, but now. And we will continue to speak out on this topic.”

During his visit last week to Burma, Kerry said, he saw first-hand the initial progress the country has made toward greater freedoms, “and I’m proud of the role – and you should be too – that the United States has played for a quarter of a century in encouraging that progress.”

But Burma ­– ­ also known as Myanmar – still has a long way to go, he said, and those leading its democratic transformation are only now addressing the deepest challenges: “Defining a new role for the military; reforming the constitution and supporting free and fair elections; ending a decades-long civil war; and guaranteeing in law the human rights that Burma’s people have been promised in name. All of this while trying to attract more investment, combating corruption, protecting the country’s forests and other resources. These are the great tests of Burma’s transition. And we intend to try to help, but in the end the leadership will have to make the critical choices.”

He said the U.S. is going to do everything it can to help reform in Burma, especially by supporting nationwide elections next year. “And we will keep urging the government – as I did last week – to take steps to ease the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, and push back against hate speech and religious violence, implement constitutional reform, and protect freedom of assembly and expression,” he said. “The government owes it to the people to do those things.”

Referring to the recent unrest and yet another military coup in longtime U.S. ally Thailand, Kerry said the administration is “very disturbed by the setback to democracy, and we hope it is a temporary bump in the road. We call on the Thai authorities to lift restrictions on political activity and speech, to restore civilian rule, and return quickly to democracy through free and fair elections.”

Summing up the U.S. agenda of what he called “super engagement” in the region, Kerry said: “I have no illusions about the challenges, and nor does President Obama. But what I want to emphasize to you all today is there is a way forward. … We are ambitious for this process: completing the TPP negotiations, creating sustainable growth, powering a clean energy revolution, managing regional rivalries by promoting cooperation, and empowering people from all walks of life – that’s how we’re going to realize the promise of the Asia Pacific.

“This is a region whose countries can and should come together, because there is much more that unites us than divides us. This is a region that can and should meet danger and difficulty with courage and collaboration. And we are determined to deliver on the strategic and historic opportunities that we can create together.”