BY ADITYA RAMACHANDRAN
On Thursday, Feb. 13, the United States Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in South Korea to, as bystanders have put it, affirm to the world the validity of his nation’s long-held pivot to Asia.
This visit has taken place at a particularly trying juncture for American foreign policy in the continent. As Kerry has gone about shaking hands in the spanking technological hub that is Seoul, one thing the global press has not highlighted is the waves that the Chinese navy is making in the Pacific Ocean, where it is wielding its new global clout on a regular basis.
Earlier this month, Chinese warships passed between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra on the way to the Indian Ocean, where they held military exercises. Long the preserve of the Republic of India, this pushing into the Indian Ocean seems to be a reflection of the Chinese dream of naval hegemony.
It is but one facet of a larger picture; The People’s Republic has long been trying to tilt the military balance of power in the Pacific Ocean, a region that has been dominated for decades by the blue water navy of the United States of America. Supported by almost all of China’s neighbors, the American military presence provided a hefty and stable counterweight to the awe-inspiring infrastructure of China’s naval arsenal.
It is undoubtedly this growing presence of China in the Pacific along with strong regional acrimony between Japan and South Korea that brought John Kerry to Asia; unsurprisingly, his visit precedes a presidential visit of Barack Obama to Asia this April. From Seoul, Kerry will be involved in discussions about improving the bilateral Korean-Japanese relationship, as well as how to increase cooperation between Washington and China, Japan and South Korea on North Korean nuclear negotiations.
With tensions in Asia riding at what is arguably a decade-long high, Kerry must walk a tightrope during his trip. He must keep the People’s Republic on board to help tackle major international issues where Chinese cooperation is necessary, primarily keeping Kim Jong Un’s actions on the Korean Peninsula in check. At the same time, the Secretary of State must reassure America’s Asian allies that the American navy is here to stay in the Pacific Ocean as a major power, while the Chinese navy grows more assertive in the region and in the world.
A crucial reason why Kerry’s trip is important is fundamentally due to the perception that there has been less attention paid to Asia under his purview than under the watch of his predecessor. Indeed, experts of geopolitics have critiqued that there has been an arguably irrational foreign policy focus on the Middle East from the present Secretary of State, one which is quite incongruous with the United States Presidents’ signal that he would make Asia a top geostrategic priority in his second term of office.
For those who understand the global stakes of these high-level meetings, the importance simply cannot be overstated. We must wait to see what results Kerry’s sojourn to the other key world players in the rising continent yields and understand that, whatever happens, this century, global politics will be shaped considerably by the push and pull of Asian geopolitics.
Aditya Ramachandran is a first-year intended government major. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.