China is happy with John Kerry because it thinks he’ll drop the ‘pivot to Asia’

February 27, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

John Kerry's first weeks as secretary of state, and even the weeks before he took the job, certainly gave the impression that he would focus on the Middle East-- on restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, on nuclear negotiations with Iran, on the Syrian civil war--and he has. But he so far has not showed much enthusiasm for the Obama administration's first-term "pivot to Asia."

It's not just Washington foreign policy analysts who've noticed Kerry's pivot back to the Middle East. China appears to have taken note as well. And, judging by Chinese state media, the country is pretty pleased.

In the thinking behind the "pivot," U.S. foreign policy would refocus from the endless dramas of the Middle East to Asia and particularly China, making sure that the United States would be a "Pacific power" with lots of influence in a part of the world that's becoming more and more important.

Elizabeth Economy, a China-watcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, noticed China's apparent pleasure with Kerry and rounded up some of the state media reactions:

Secretary Kerry’s apparent unease with the pivot has unsurprisingly set the Chinese press all atwitter and given Chinese analysts some hope that President Obama has appointed a kinder, gentler Secretary of State. The major Chinese state-supported newspapers—the Global Times, People’s Daily, and Xinhua—highlighted his remarks on the pivot and then offered some thoughts on Kerry’s likely diplomatic approach:

China Institute of International Studies’ Ruan Zongze: “Compared with Clinton’s tough diplomatic approach, Kerry as a moderate democrat is expected to stress the role of bilateral or multilateral dialogues”;

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Ni Feng: Kerry’s “diplomatic measures” will “greatly embody Obama’s concepts.”

In reviewing Secretary Kerry’s congressional voting record, Chinese observers also noted that he “generally voted in favor of bills conducive to promoting the development China-U.S. relations and generally voted against or expressed different opinions for bills not conducive to China-U.S. relations.” Overall, as People’s Daily observed, “Kerry stresses more on coordination rather than confrontation in foreign relations.”

Kerry himself sort of predicted this when he said of the pivot during his confirmation hearings, "You know, the Chinese take a look at that and say, what’s the United States doing? They trying to circle us? What’s going on?"

China has not been happy about the "pivot," which it sees as a hostile effort to contain China's rise. Beijing can be a little paranoid at times about U.S. intentions in East Asia, but it is not totally wrong that the United States wants to build a network of alliances along China's periphery; it already has military bases, after all, in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and soon Australia.

The idea that a rising state such as China would compete for influence with the regional power is international relations 101, after all. It's not surprising that the United States would want to preempt East Asian competition with China by exerting its influence in the region now, nor is it surprising that China would be unhappy about it. But the United States and China have a lot of incentives, many of them financial, to keeping their relationship stable. So the United States has a strong incentive to play down the idea that its Asia focus is about containing China.

Kerry's balancing act, as he seems to see it, is about how to engage in Asia without unduly upsetting China and damaging the important (and sometimes-tenuous) U.S.-China relationship. It looks like Kerry might be erring a little more on the side of preserving friendly U.S.-China relations than Hillary Clinton did as secretary of state, when she cultivated close ties with Southeast Asian states, often to Beijing's outrage. That doesn't mean that Kerry is giving up on Asia, of course, but it suggests a different set of priorities there, more about maintaining a positive status quo than trying to assert a new dynamic.

If a goal of Kerry's pivot-away-from-the-pivot is to improve ties with China, it looks like that plan might already be succeeding. But if it's just about Kerry having more interest in the Middle East, where he has deeper experience, then that could be China's gain.

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