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Kerry to Seek to Defuse Asia Maritime Tensions During Visit

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Seoul military airport in Seoul on Feb. 13, 2014. Photographer: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Asia for a three-nation visit where he will pressure China to restrain its maritime claims and do more to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Kerry will arrive today in South Korea, before moving onto China and Indonesia. He travels to the region at a time when tensions are rising between Japan and China over a territorial dispute in the East China Sea and North Korea continues to defy international calls to halt its nuclear weapons development.

This trip is his fifth to Asia and the second to Seoul since becoming the top U.S. diplomat last year. Kerry’s departure for the region coincided with a White House announcement of President Barack Obama’s own trip to Asia in April. Obama made no mention of his so-called “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, outlining little in the way of foreign policy priorities in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address.

A senior State Department official said Kerry’s trip reflects the Obama administration’s focus on Asia as a strategic priority. The U.S. will seek China’s cooperation on efforts to convince the North Korean leadership to abandon its pursuit of nuclear missile capability, said the official who asked not to be named according to department policy.

China Disputes

Kerry will also use his visit to Beijing to reinforce the U.S. position that it is unwise for China to take actions that disrupt the status quo in in the region, said the official. Alongside its territorial claims in the East China Sea, China is embroiled in disputes with a number of Southeast Asian nations over a large part of the South China Sea, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run.

The senior U.S. official said the Obama administration is particularly concerned by steps China has taken to undermine administrative control of other territories.

China in November set up an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea over islands disputed with Japan, demanding civil and military aircraft present flight plans before entering the space. Protests broke out in China in late 2012 after Japan bought some of the uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, from a private owner.

Air Zone

Arrangements for the April meeting between Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are being finalized, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today. Japan hopes the summit can bolster security ties with the U.S. and include discussion of regional issues “such as the situation in North Korea and the freedom of the seas,” Suga said.

Kerry will meet China Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his trip, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Feb. 10. China urges the U.S. to stop making “irresponsible” remarks over China’s air defense zone, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement on the ministry’s website Feb. 8.

In Seoul, Kerry will discuss tensions between South Korea and Japan that have risen since Abe in December visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including convicted war criminals. Kerry will seek to smooth the relationship between the two U.S. allies in the region, the State Department official said.

Kerry last week restated to his counterpart Fumio Kishida that the U.S. is committed to its obligation to defend Japanese-administered territory, including in the East China Sea.

U.S. Rebalance

Recent comments by the leaders of Japan and the Philippines drawing parallels between China’s assertiveness in the region and events in pre-war Europe are “not helpful,” the commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific said in an interview Feb. 9.

General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle also said any move by China to extend an air defense zone south, where it has disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, would be “very provocative.” China introduced fishing rules last month requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.

Military spending cuts and the distraction of conflicts in other parts of the world have raised questions on the U.S. sticking to its military rebalancing to Asia. Obama sent Kerry in his place on a four-nation trip to Asia last October as he dealt with a partial government shutdown at home.

The U.S. is committed to Asia independent of budget levels, Frank Kendall, under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters in Singapore Feb. 12.

Still, less money means “we have to do less, and we have a lot of commitments around the world so we have to rebalance the rebalance, I guess I could say,” he said. “The shift in emphasis to Asia and the Pacific region is here to stay. There’s no question about it.”

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