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Posted on: Sunday, January 14, 2001

Isle resident gets Asia-Pacific portfolio

By Tom Plate

James A. Kelly, as the next assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will be a key figure in reordering U.S.-Asia policy.

Nice guys don’t always finish last.

Shortly after Gen. Colin Powell heard from President-elect George W. Bush that he was indeed to be nominated as the next secretary of state, he picked up the telephone and asked someone he has known for years to join his team as the next assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs — a difficult but important position.

This means that, in the designedly decentralized Bush Jr. administration, Powell will become the archbishop of U.S. foreign policy, and nice-guy James A. Kelly his vicar for Asia.

Kelly’s resume reads like someone who might very well have been preparing for this position all his life. For nearly a decade, this quiet American has resided in Hawaii, demographically if not geographically the U.S. state closest to Asia, and has of late been the guru in charge of the Pacific Forum, the Honolulu-based nonprofit dedicated to improving cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.

As its president, Kelly, a former Navy captain, has made many friends, few enemies and no waves.

That basic personality profile extends back to the 1980s, when Powell was President George Bush’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Kelly served as senior director for Asian affairs on the White House National Security Council.

Powell liked Kelly in part for the reason so many people do: He is a careful, sincere listener whose personal and professional confidence allows him to take "no" for an answer when challenged by a convincing but dissenting point of view.

Not surprisingly, the overall initial reaction in the U.S.-Asia policy community is positive — and somewhat reassured. Said Charles Morrison, head of the influential East-West Center in Ho-nolulu: "He’s a very good listener with a wide range of contacts in America and Asia. The last thing Asians want is Americans who push their own policy agenda without listening to them. So this is a superb appointment."

Agreed Stanley Roth, the astute current assistant secretary of state for Asia who is now cleaning out his office in anticipation of Kelly’s confirmation: "He’s not some wild-eyed ideologue that’s going to try to swing U.S. policy this way or that. Frankly, I’m relieved."

Even if Kelly were some dotty right-wing doctrinaire, of course, the position of assistant secretary of state is hardly powerful enough to turn U.S. policy upside down. There are countless (OK, at least 30) such assistant-secretary-level positions in the Department of State alone, and they have to compete for attention with powerful counterparts at the Defense and Commerce departments, not to mention the White House.

Even so, Kelly, once confirmed, will emerge as a key figure in U.S. policy toward Asia far more than his predecessor. Agreed esteemed University of California at Berkeley Professor Robert Scalapino, who has known Kelly for years: "Jim will have more influence with the new secretary of state than Stanley Roth did with Madeleine Albright. He is much closer to Powell."

Like Powell’s, Kelly’s basic instincts tend to be cautious and controlled, but he is known to believe that U.S. policy in Asia needs a lot of work. He worries, as do others in this incoming administration, that U.S. policy has too glibly downplayed China’s potential security threat in order to talk up its economic potential.

Kelly has real concerns about the Taiwan security issue and the corrosive effect that Clinton’s courting of China has had on the U.S.-Japan relationship. Thus, he would raise the Japan banner higher than did the Clinton administration: In public forums, Kelly often points out that, despite its current problems, Japan still accounts for well more than half the entire Asian economy.

Some kind of redress of the perceived imbalance in U.S. attention to Japan and China is high on the Bush team’s agenda. The trick, though, is to do that without seeming to backtrack on the hard-earned gains over the past few years in the Sino-U.S. relationship.

China, after all, is now more usefully engaged in the international community than ever before and indeed has played a positive role in a number of crucial areas, including the thorny North Korean problem.

This is why the Bush administration’s almost fanatical enthusiasm for building new defensive missile systems will inordinately complicate the emerging Asia policy. Beijing finds missile defenses in Asia inherently provocative, especially if Taiwan winds up under the U.S. umbrella, and will counter any U.S. move with a fierce and determined offensive-missile buildup of its own. That would be the last thing Tokyo — or anyone in Asia — wants.

Kelly, the quiet old Asia hand, is well aware of these implications. His access to the incoming secretary of state means that all who care about the Asia-U.S. relationship will be counting on him to slow down sudden, dramatic policy departures that have superficial appeal but may unintentionally create serious turmoil.

The issue for Asia, then, may well be not whether Kelly is such a good listener — but whether Colin Powell is.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for The Honolulu Advertiser and the South China Morning Post (e-mail:

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