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BEIJING – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's address to Hawaii's East-West Center think tank this week drew attention primarily for its focus on the need for a constructive relationship with China to ensure regional peace and stability. However, Kerry touched also on U.S. relationships with five other key players in the region — Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand — some of them locked in contentious disputes with Beijing. He also dwelt at length on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a free trade pact the U.S. is negotiating with 11 other nations. Here's what Kerry had to say about those overlooked issues, and what it means.
THE TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP
WHAT KERRY SAID: "It is a state-of-the-art, 21st century trade agreement, and it is consistent not just with our shared economic interests, but also with our shared values."
WHAT IT MEANS: The free trade pact known as the TPP is a key component of President Barack Obama's efforts to boost American exports to the growing economies of Asia. It would also serve to assert U.S. influence in the region in the face of an ascendant China, which is not included in the negotiations. However, negotiations have been bogged down over differences with Japan and others on access to sectors such as automobiles and agricultural products. It also faces opposition from U.S. labor groups and lawmakers in Obama's own Democratic Party who argue it could leave U.S. workers vulnerable to competition from countries with lower labor costs.
WHAT KERRY SAID: "... the United States and Australia are today as close as nations can get. Our time-honored alliance has helped both of our countries to achieve important goals ..."
WHAT IT MEANS: The U.S. and Australia entered into a formal mutual defense treaty in 1952 at the height of the Korean War. China regards the alliance as part of a U.S. strategy of encirclement and containment and objected strongly to a 2011 agreement to bolster the U.S. military presence in Australia with 2,500 Marines who will rotate through a joint military training hub in the northern Australian city of Darwin, where about 1,100 are already based.
WHAT KERRY SAID: "I visited Indonesia in February, and I saw the promise of a democratic future. The world's third largest democracy sets a terrific example for the world. And the United States is deeply committed to our comprehensive partnership."
WHAT IT MEANS: The U.S. has a complicated history with Indonesia reaching back to the Cold War, when Washington overlooked human rights abuses by the authoritarian regime of Suharto in exchange for his support as a bulwark against communist expansion in Southeast Asia. Relations improved with the election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004, and gained further momentum with the resumption of some U.S. military assistance to Indonesian special forces in 2010 after a 12-year break because of human rights concerns. Indonesia has also sought to mediate between China and other claimants in the South China Sea.
WHAT KERRY SAID: "And we support the Philippines' taking steps to resolve its maritime dispute with China peacefully."
WHAT IT MEANS: Ensuring the peaceful resolution of such disputes is of crucial importance to Washington because its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines could force it to get involved were armed conflict to erupt between Manila and Beijing. That treaty weathered the withdrawal in 1992 of U.S. troops from their last Philippine bases, although China's encroachment and the threat from Islamic radicals has seen the alliance grow closer in recent years. An Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in April would allow the U.S. to station troops and operate out of the Philippines, short of establishing permanent bases. That's seen as a major confidence-building measure for the Philippines, whose bantam weight armed forces would be easily overwhelmed by China's might in any armed conflict.
WHAT KERRY SAID: "It's now a dynamic country filled with economic opportunity. It's a market for our businesses and our investors ... And it's a partner in tackling regional economic and security challenges."
WHAT IT MEANS: China too has been a major driver of the growing U.S.-Vietnam security relationship, underscored by the presence this week in Hanoi of U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit Vietnam since 1971. Chinese and Vietnamese ships sparred over the summer over Beijing's deployment of an oil rig in a disputed section of the South China Sea, after which the U.S. and Vietnam agreed to stepped-up military cooperation, focused on training and maritime security. The U.S. has also indicated it may partially lift a ban on weapons sales to its former enemy, possible as early as September.
WHAT KERRY SAID: "In Thailand, a close friend and ally, we are disturbed by the setback to democracy and hope it is a temporary bump in the road. ... We call on the Thai authorities to lift restrictions on political activity and speech, restore civilian rule and return quickly to democracy through free and fair elections."
WHAT IT MEANS: The May 22 coup toppled an elected government and parliament after months of sometimes violent political protests that have paralyzed the government and disrupted life in Bangkok. The U.S. voiced its displeasure and the junta promised to hold elections by October next year — but only after rewriting the constitution and purging state institutions of allies of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains hugely popular among the poor but reviled by Thailand's conservative elites. Thailand is among America's oldest allies in Asia, and Washington wants to keep it that way, especially since China has been courting more investments in the country in a bid to gain influence.