Kerry shows Asia stance with focus on dialogue

Secretary of State John Kerry has offered the first signs of his priorities in Asia by offering dialogue to ease a crisis with North Korea, while vowing to keep a strong US interest in the region.

Kerry made his Asian debut as the top US diplomat with a tour of China and allies Japan and South Korea after his third trip in office to the Middle East, an early focus that has unnerved pundits who see Asia as the future.

The former senator flew to the region with tensions at their worst in years with North Korea, whose young leader Kim Jong-Un has threatened nuclear war against the United States and South Korea after carrying out an atomic test.

The United States initially responded to the crisis with a show of force including a flight of a nuclear-capable stealth jet. But Kerry put an emphasis on dialogue, saying that the door remained open if North Korea wanted talks.

In China, Kerry said the United States would eventually ease its military build-up as "obviously, if the threat disappears -- i.e., North Korea denuclearizes, the same imperative does not exist at that point in time for us."

Several US officials and experts saw Kerry's remarks more as a strategic shift in tone than in policy, saying that the United States wanted to find a way to de-escalate the crisis by offering North Korea a way out.

President Barack Obama's administration and South Korea's new President Park Geun-Hye have been careful never to rule out a return to diplomacy, which US officials say privately remains the only eventual option even if no one expects a breakthrough with Pyongyang any time soon.

In the Senate, Kerry was a leading advocate for dialogue and humanitarian assistance to North Korea. Critics say that the United States needs a new approach.

"I can understand from where he sits, that he wants to de-escalate and go into negotiations because that's what you do when you're the chief US diplomat," said Daniel Twining, a State Department official on Asia during George W. Bush's administration.

"The problem is that the North Koreans will have actually achieved their objective if they get what he has offered notionally: ... direct talks with the United States," he said.

Twining, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that Kerry since his nomination has reinforced perceptions that the US "pivot" to Asia had more to do with his predecessor Hillary Clinton.

Kerry may "want to make his mark in another way" but at the same time "undercuts the administration's strong claim that the pivot to Asia is the core strategic thing that they are doing in foreign policy," he said.

In his confirmation hearing, Kerry said he was not convinced of the need for the "increased military ramp-up" in Asia -- a marked rhetorical shift from that of Clinton and Pentagon officials during Obama's first term.

The United States announced last year it would shift the majority of its navy to the Pacific by 2020, in what was widely seen as a signal to China which is stepping up military spending and has conflicts with several neighbors.

Kerry appeared to walk back on his comments while in Asia, saying in a speech in Tokyo not to be "skeptical" of US promises.

"My commitment to you is that as a Pacific nation that takes our Pacific partnership seriously, we will continue to build on our active and enduring presence," Kerry said.

Gordon Flake, the executive director of the Mansfield Foundation who advised Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign, said that Asia was a clear priority for the White House.

Flake said that the the administration has shown its Asia focus concretely through the robust response to North Korea and movement in negotiations on a trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

He played down Kerry's early travel. While Clinton broke precedent by making her first trip to Asia, Flake expected more trips to Asia later this year when meetings are scheduled.

"There's a transition period. But as for the notion that the rebalancing has dropped off dramatically, I'm not too concerned," Flake said.