In 40 months as secretary of state, John Kerry has visited 82 countries, logged over 1.1 million miles traveled, and spent 540 days on the road. This is an important, if grueling, signal about U.S. commitment to working with countries around the world. The secretary has spent most of his time where crises are most glaring: in Europe—coordinating on security, refugees, and economics—and in the Middle East—managing the Iran nuclear deal and Syria’s ongoing civil war. In 2015, Kerry spent over half his time in Europe, with no other region accounting for more than 10 percent of his travel days. That pattern has largely continued in the first half of 2016.
|Travel days per year by region|
|South/East Asia||Europe||Middle East/North Africa||Americas||Central Asia||Africa||TOTAL|
Challenges to U.S. interests and security in Asia are not as immediate as those posed by Russia in Europe nor as violent as in Syria. But the trend lines on security and diplomacy are moving in troubling directions. The international system, rooted in the equality of all countries, is being challenged by a Chinese approach that seeks recognition for itself as first among neighbors. China’s diplomatic blitz to establish—however ephemerally—international credibility for its opposition to the legitimacy of a tribunal in The Hague that is considering weighing some of its excessive claims in the South China Sea undermines both U.S. credibility and the legitimacy of arbitration as a peaceful dispute resolution mechanism. Like the challenges requiring the secretary’s time in Europe and the Middle East, these are not challenges that can be addressed in a bureaucratic, bottom-up way; they require leadership from the United States’ foremost diplomat.
Luckily, next month offers an opportunity for Secretary Kerry to demonstrate this leadership in an important way. He will be in Vientiane on July 26 for the ASEAN Regional Forum—the annual gathering of the foreign ministers of the 10 Southeast Asian countries that comprise ASEAN and their 17 dialogue partners. While in Asia, there is another, arguably more important opportunity for him to show leadership and advance U.S. interests: he should make a trip to the Philippines.
The Philippine president-elect, former Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte, will assume office on July 1. He is not well-known to the U.S. foreign policy establishment and could prove a difficult leader for the United States to work with if his support is taken for granted. Duterte is not reflexively pro-American and has expressed serious concerns about both the history of U.S. involvement in the Philippines and the credibility of the U.S. treaty commitment to defend his country. At the same time, he has indicated an adamancy about preserving Philippine claims in the South China Sea, even while indicating a willingness to engage more directly with China.
U.S. officials have had few previous opportunities for interaction with Duterte—President Barack Obama spoke with him by phone following his election and Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg was only able to travel to Davao on June 13 to meet him. Secretary Kerry should leverage his travel to the region to be the first cabinet official to meet with President Duterte, directly hear his objectives and what role (if any) he sees for cooperating with the United States, and reassure him of the seriousness of U.S. commitment to the mutual defense treaty. The secretary can reinforce the message the United States has delivered to the Philippines throughout the Obama administration, emphasizing the importance of partnership and cooperation to enhance the security of both the Philippines and the region as a whole.
The first step in securing the U.S.-Philippine relationship in the next administration is to meet with Duterte, listen to his views, and start that conversation. This is something only Secretary Kerry can do, and he should.