By Ernie Bower
Secretary of State John Kerry will leave Washington this Friday, June 21, for a trip that has morphed from a South-Southeast Asia affair to another Middle East trip with a Southeast Asia finish.
Originally, the secretary planned to visit Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Brunei, and Vietnam. Ten days ago, that plan changed. He will now fly from Washington to Qatar, India, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, and finally to Brunei for the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN-U.S. ministerial consultations.
This is the second time Kerry has given Indonesia a no-go after extensive recommendations and planning by his staff in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department. The first was in April, when the plan was for him to visit Indonesia as part of a Northeast Asia trip that took him to Japan, Korea, and China. He cancelled the Indonesia portion of that visit. ASEAN’s largest country was again left on the planning room floor at State when the secretary changed his schedule to include an urgent round of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East related to the situation in Syria.
With Susan Rice stepping into the role of National Security Advisor, replacing Tom Donilon, and Samantha Power tapped to succeed Rice at the United Nations, many see the likelihood that the United States will play a more involved role in Syria. Asia is rightly concerned to see the center of gravity for foreign policy momentum and creativity shift from Foggy Bottom to Pennsylvania Avenue. The chief U.S. desk officer for Asia right now appears to be President Barack Obama. The good news is that the boss is personally interested and engaged. The bad news is that he is the president and, depending on developments, may only be able to muster up sporadic concentrated focus on the region.
However, Obama seems to understand the situation. He told his cabinet earlier this month that every secretary must review their department’s plans with an eye to the Asia Pacific “pivot” or “rebalancing,” (Washington now prefers the latter nomenclature), and told each of them to ensure she or he makes at least one trip per year to the region.
Expect to see the United States move to square the circle on eligibility for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to include India and the three members of ASEAN now excluded—Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. With Michael Froman as U.S. Trade Representative, there is also a chance that geostrategic thinking will finally mix with trade negotiations and the United States may agree to set a goal of reaching a U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement in order to get observer access to the economic integration plan that includes most other members of the East Asia Summit—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. That move will not be inconsistent with driving to finish TPP, but it is a fundamental step to getting the United States into the game with regard to balancing strategy with a strong economic plan that doesn’t ask Asians to do what they won’t do—namely to commit to regional economic integration plans that exclude China, their neighbor and soon to be the world’s largest economy.
Finally, expect to see the new commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, a scion of the Hyatt Hotel founding family, break through and start to more proactively engage the U.S. private sector. Look for U.S. CEOs to be seen traveling with cabinet members and showing up with the president in Asia, perhaps as early as this October.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.