Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry made his sixth trip to Asia since taking office, and traveled to Myanmar, Australia, the Solomon Islands and Hawai‘i. Throughout the trip Secretary Kerry reiterated the importance of ASEAN as “fundamental to being able to uphold a rules-based system in the Asia Pacific” and “work[ing] together in order to deal with shared challenges.”
While participating in the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) in Myanmar, Secretary Kerry and the foreign ministers of partner countries launched the LMI Eminent and Expert Persons Group (EEPG). Established to “ensure that the work of the Initiative is focused on the needs of partner countries,” the EEPG will focus primarily on promoting environmental sustainability. The Lower Mekong Initiative’s other “Signature Programs” have been quite successful, including such projects as improving infrastructure, women’s entrepreneurship, detecting pandemics and employment training. The Friends of the Lower Mekong (FLM) ministerial meeting echoed similar themes, with all of the ministers committing to work together to support sustainable development and regional development priorities. Still in Myanmar, Secretary Kerry also led the US delegation to the US-ASEAN ministerial meeting. To support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), it was announced at the meeting that the 2nd ASEAN-US Business Summit will be held in conjunction with the ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting later this month. Additionally, the US-ASEAN Business Alliance for Competitive SMEs, which was launched in March, will create an SME Online Academy to help SMEs gain more access to regional and international markets.
On August 10th, Secretary Kerry led the US delegation to the 21st ARF ministerial meeting. The matters at hand included preventive diplomacy, maritime security, nonproliferation, counterterrorism and disaster response. At the EAS meeting that same day, Secretary Kerry urged restraint and calm when it came to the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. He expressed the hope that the ASEAN countries and China would “accelerate negotiations on a meaningful Code of Conduct” via voluntarily freezing “activities that ‘would complicate or escalate tensions.’” Concerns surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the need for support for a Philippine-Australian proposal for Rapid Disaster Response guidelines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan were also discussed.
With no signs of slowing down after these five ministerial meetings, Secretary Kerry traveled to Australia where he joined Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel for the AUSMIN meeting. They were joined by Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Australian Minister of Defence Senator David Johnston. Together they signed the Force Posture Agreement, which will lead to eventual full implementation of the Force Posture Initiatives in Australia.
As the first Secretary of State to visit the Solomon Islands, Secretary Kerry paid his respects to the ties that have bound the United States and the Solomon Islands together since World War II. At the Guadalcanal American Memorial, he thanked the Solomon Islanders for their countryman’s rescue of then Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy and stated that it was here that the “tide of battle turned” in the United States’ favor against the Japanese. He also discussed sustainable development with the islands’ Prime Minister Gordon Lilo and Governor General Frank Kabui, as climate change is a big concern for the tiny island nation.
Secretary Kerry’s final stop was Hawai‘i, where he met with military leaders at the US Pacific Command headquarters. At the East-West Center, Secretary Kerry outlined the United States’ “Vision for Asia-Pacific Engagement.” During his address, he outlined four areas of opportunity for cooperation between the United States and Asia: “creating sustainable economic growth, powering a clean energy revolution, promoting regional cooperation and empowering people.” He emphasized the need to act now to mitigate climate change and the need for “a formula for the 21st century that will sustainably power us into the 22nd century.” Regarding the South China Sea disputes, Secretary Kerry held up the Philippines’ use of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to peacefully resolve its dispute with China as a prime example of how these disputes should be dealt with, while urging the United States to become a party to UNCLOS as soon as possible. He also called for everyone in the region to “carry [the] torch forward” and continue to push for democracy and human rights in Thailand, North Korea and Myanmar.
Secretary Kerry’s trip reinforced the US commitment to a stable and prosperous Asia-Pacific region. That will be reinforced when President Obama makes another trip to Asia this fall.
Sarah Batiuk is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington, DC.