US Secretary of State John Kerry has taken a clear stance at this year's ASEAN Regional Forum. His country is to remain committed in Asia, but also to avoid direct confrontation with its main rival China.
America's foreign policy shift towards Asia was initiated by Kerry's predecessor Hillary Clinton. In 2009, she made her first trip as Secretary of State to Asia. Two years later, she declared this century to be "America's Pacific Century." In an essay for "Foreign Policy" magazine she wrote: "Just as Asia is critical to America's future, an engaged America is vital to Asia's future."
In the past few months, however, doubts have been cast over whether the US was both willing and capable of continuing its commitment in Asia, according to Ernest Bower and Noelan Arbis, senior advisers at the US-based Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) "Regional partners have questions about the sustainability and level of commitment of the rebalance as Kerry has seemingly prioritized the Syrian conflict and restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since taking office on February 1."
However, the Secretary of State seems to have taken a different approach at this year's Regional Forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Brunei. During the opening ceremony Kerry emphasized that the US would continue on the path it had taken so far with the Asia Pacific and keep on building on "our active and our enduring presence in every respect."
Set up in 1994, the ASEAN Regional Forum has 27 members. The annual meeting includes the 18 members of the East Asia Summit such as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea the United States as well as nine other states.
Kerry seems to be following the strategy adopted by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his visit last month to the Asian security conference, the Shangri-La dialogue. Hagel said: "It is true that the Department of Defense will have fewer resources than in the recent past. It would be unwise and short-sighted to conclude, however, that our commitment to the rebalance cannot be sustained."
'No intention of containing China'
According to Bower and Arbis, the strategic challenges the US has to face are diverse. They range from the territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas to North Korea's nuclear program and religious violence in Myanmar.
The US approach to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea serves as a good example for this. Kerry addressed the issue in Brunei by saying: "We have a strong interest in the manner in which the disputes of the South China Sea are addressed and in the conduct of the parties. We very much hope to see progress soon on a substantive code of conduct in order to help ensure stability in this vital region."
At the same time, Kerry pointed out that the US wouldn't get involved in particular disputes, and that it would instead push for international regulations. It seems that by doing so the US is seeking to support its regional partners and act as a counterbalance to China, without being on a confrontation course. Kerry underscored this point indirectly in Brunei: "Our actions are not intended to contain or to counterbalance any one country."
However, Gerhard Will, researcher at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, is not convinced. "The US is pursuing a policy of containment, though it does not always seem to be aware of it. Washington claims it wants to give the Chinese more say, but if you look closely, you'll see that this is not the case."
This could lead to China and the US facing each other as rivals in South East Asia, Will says. "A strategy like this doesn't have any long-term prospects and will ultimately force ASEAN member states to choose between a pro-American and a pro-Chinese side."
This is why Will believes that Kerry has set out to regain the trust of ASEAN countries. The expert says these nations believe they cannot necessarily count on US support in times of true crisis, as the dispute over the Scarborough Shoal shows. Last year, Chinese surveillance ships seized the Scarborough Shoal following a tense standoff with Philippine vessels. The US didn't intervene.
Community of interests
But Will says this situation is different from the one during the Cold War where Americans and Soviets faced each other as enemies. "Things are much more complicated nowadays," he said, adding that the far-reaching economic relations between the US and China have created a community of interest. "It's difficult to reconcile a policy of containment with the economic interests of both the US and China."
This community of interests was apparent regarding North Korea. After a meeting between Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, both leaders said they were "absolutely united" in their resistance to North Korea's nuclear program.