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Kerry talks climate change during Asia trip

February 16, 2014 at 7:01 PM EDT
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has discussed climate change in both China and Indonesia during his latest diplomatic mission in Asia. Why has climate change grabbed a top spot on Kerry’s agenda in Asia? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Geoff Dyer, a foreign policy writer for the Financial Times, about Kerry’s trip and current U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: As we reported earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Indonesia today after concluding a two-day visit to China. For more about his latest diplomatic mission, we’re joined now from Washington by Geoff Dyer — he writes about foreign policy for the Financial Times and reported from China for six years. So, Jeff, yesterday John Kerry was making news about climate change in China, today in Indonesia. Why is climate so high on the State Department’s agenda right now?

GEOFF DYER: Well, I think there are two reasons for that. One is the secretary of state is trying to build momentum towards a big climate change conference next year. This a big personal priority of his as well, he’s always been very committed to this issue. And then the other reason, I think, is that the U.S. government sees climate change and environmental issues as one of the areas in which it can potentially cooperate with China. It has a relationship with China that has all sorts of competitive aspects, some of which are really gathering steam, but climate change is one of the areas where maybe they can work together in a much more coherent manner.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Okay, and one of the areas the U.S. wants to work with China is about North Korea. So is North Korea’s, or I should say, is China’s influence on North Korea diminishing with the recent sort of tumult that’s been happening there?

GEOFF DYER: Well, China is still very much the guarantor of the North Korean regime. It still provides a lot of the economic assistance and aid which the regime relies on. But when Kim Jong Un had his uncle executed, essentially, a couple of months ago — his uncle Jang Song Taek was a very close, what was the person in the regime who the Chinese had the closest ties to. They saw him as someone they could deal with more effectively. They were hoping that he would encourage more Chinese-style economic reforms in North Korea. So now that he’s out of the picture they feel that they potentially have much less influence over the regime.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And let’s talk a little bit about a couple months ago we heard the saber rattling from both China and Japan about these disputed islands. Is that getting any better?

GEOFF DYER: That’s still very much a very hot issue. I mean there are engagements almost on a daily basis between Japanese ships and Chinese ships, Japanese aircrafts and Chinese aircrafts. The risk is not that the Chinese are going to invade the islands or anything like that. The risk is that you get some sort of accident, a miscalculation, and one of these pilots maybe goes a little bit too far and you can get the sort of incident that quickly spins out of control.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, and finally let’s take kind of a big picture look. Where is the U.S. status in Asia? The president, President Obama, is scheduled to go visit a few Asian countries in April.

GEOFF DYER: Absolutely, yes. The U.S. still is in a very strong position in Asia and one of the main reasons for that is that most of the other countries in the region, apart from China, want to see a similar sort of status quo, a similar sort of structure in Asian politics. But the regime has–or the administration has lost a bit of ground in the last few months. There is a sense that it has gotten distracted. Secretary Kerry is very much focused on the Middle East. The president was supposed to go to Asia last September, had to cancel because of the government shut down and the deficit ceiling talks. So there’s a sense in Asia that the Obama Administration has really slightly lost its momentum, has maybe gotten a bit distracted and I think that’s why Secretary Kerry is there this week. That’s why that he’s trying to show he’s very much still focused on Asia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How much of the president’s visit will be to try and offer a counterbalance or be a counterweight to China’s growing influence in the region?

GEOFF DYER: Well that is the broader thrust of U.S. policy in the region at the moment is to try and show that it’s not going to disappear, that China is not going to take over and become the dominant power. But also they try and– it’s a very subtle policy as well because they’re also trying to get on with China and all sorts of other areas, particularly in the environment. We’re trying to work with China on North Korea, on Iran. So it’s not a case of all out competition, or all out cooperation, it’s a jewel approach.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about those larger context conversations about China and the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. keeps butting heads when it comes to issues like Syria.

GEOFF DYER: Absolutely. Although I think that on the Syria issue the broader issue is probably with Russia. China tends to support Russia, but it hasn’t really stood out in any way on Syria. It’s with Russia that the really hard sort of diplomatic work is going to be done on the Syria issue.