STATE DEPARTMENT— U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to South Korea on Friday, to China on Saturday, and to Japan on Sunday. This first trip to Asia will focus on North Korea and a series of regional disputes.
While in Seoul, State Department officials say Kerry will discuss an agreement already in place for a "proportional" response by the United States and South Korea to any North Korean aggression.
There will also be talk of South Korea's civilian nuclear program and President Park Geun-hye's trip to Washington next month.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says President Park's position on North Korea adds to pressure on Kerry to get Beijing to help with Pyongyang.
"The escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula may in fact require a new level of strategic discourse in the U.S.-China relationship sooner rather than later if escalation is to be contained, particularly given the unpredictability and political inexperience of Kim Jong Un, the domestic political pressure on newly-elected President Park in South Korea to respond in kind to any fresh military provocation from the North, and the absence of a Chinese 'Plan B' if hostilities were to erupt," said Rudd.
Doug Paal, director of the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes Chinese leaders are pleased with North Korea's appointment of a more progressive, Chinese-educated, prime minister.
"Park Poong-joo can be seen by the Chinese as a way for the North to undertake, as China has been urging for more than a decade, the same kind of reforms China has undertaken which would bring to North Korea economic and social stability that is elusive with their current failing economic model," he said.
That, he says, is an opportunity for Kerry to address Chinese concerns about an ultimately reunified Korean peninsula.
"And I think the president could authorize Kerry to say that the U.S. has no need nor intention of putting its troops north of the 30th parallel, except to extract the nuclear weapons," he said. "Now, can you live with that? Do you want a South Korea that reunifies that is hostile to you or do you want to work with it?"
In Tokyo, Kerry will reaffirm Washington's commitment to help defend Japan from a North Korean attack. Former U.S. Defense Department official for Asia Jim Schoff says China's preeminence in the U.S. approach to North Korea concerns Japanese leaders facing their own territorial standoff with Beijing.
"Our desire to have China be a part of our solution there will make Japan potentially a little bit more uncomfortable because Japan would certainly like to talk about the Senkaku Islands and making sure that the United States is strong behind Japan’s defense of those islands in the face of encroachment by China, so there’s a bit of a delicate diplomacy that Secretary Kerry will have to conduct there," said Schoff.
Schoff expects Kerry to broaden the diplomatic dialogue in both Tokyo and Seoul.
"Kerry will try to engage and bring Japan and South Korea, in particular get them involved in other global issues - Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and rebuilding and sustaining that transition there," he said. "So there’ll be this theme of America’s engaged in Asia, but we also want our Asian allies to be a partner in dealing with global challenges."
President Obama's just-released budget shows his commitment to a greater role in Asia with increased funding for social programs in Burma, economic assistance for Vietnam, military spending in the Philippines and support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN.