State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom

State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom

“[T]his budget isn’t just a collection of numbers; it’s an illustration of our values and priorities,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in his testimony before the House Foreign Relations Committee on the proposed State Department budget. It’s not clear from his testimony today that one of those priorities is America’s commitment to its allies and interests in Asia.

Kerry outlined the key changes in the budget: $580 million toward the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund, $8.6 billion toward counterterrorism and law enforcement measures, and a reduction in the USAID budget by $500 million in the next 10 years.

While Kerry emphasized the grave nature of the situation in North Korea, he placed a much more significant emphasis on our engagement in the Middle East. And when it came to naming practical implications for the Asia pivot, he only briefly mentioned the Obama Administration’s commitment to passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

When pressed on the State Department’s strategy for handling North Korea, Kerry claimed that the U.S. had a completely new approach to handling the regime. But he still stated that diplomacy was the cornerstone of relations and reinforced a positive strategy of engagement.

“The policy of Russia, the policy of China, the policy of South Korea, Japan and the United States is the policy is of denuclearization. The single country that has the greatest ability to be able to impact that is China. So we had that discussion and we agreed in the very next days now to engage in an ongoing process by which we work out exactly how we are going to proceed so that it is different.” He seems to have overlooked that when the Chinese talk about “denuclearization,” they usually also mean the U.S. nuclear umbrella over its allies in Japan and South Korea.

But in reality, the strategy seems to be more of the same. Later on in the hearing, Kerry suggested that the U.S. had very little influence with North Korea and that diplomatic negotiation on the part of China was the primary strategy going forward. “Absent China coming to the table, I believe [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un calculates…that (he) can get away with anything if China is not going to hold [him] accountable.”

Kerry said that diplomacy could actually work here. But the U.S. and South Korea have tried diplomacy with North Korea before, and North Korea has continued to test missiles and nuclear weapons unabated. They’ve also tried repeatedly with the Chinese to no avail.

When asked about diesel submarines for Taiwan, Kerry failed to answer the question at all. And while it was positive that Kerry acknowledged the Administration’s human rights concerns in Burma and promised continued support for democratization in the region, the Obama Administration should not be too quick to reward governmental reforms. Reform in Burma is a long haul; the Administration is giving up most of its leverage on the front end.

Based on Kerry’s testimony, it appears that the State Department values economic engagement with Asia over its military commitments to allies such as South Korea and Japan. Economic engagement on a free-market basis is critical, but so are other elements of American power, particularly the presence of its forward-deployed military.

Kerry’s portrayal of America’s influence in the region seemed to suggest that the U.S. is weak and that it had no political power to effectuate change, particularly in North Korea. The Secretary of State, of all people, should not convey American weakness.