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The most peripatetic U.S. Secretary of State since — well, since Hillary Clinton — flew into Honolulu on Wednesday to share what was billed as “America’s Vision for Asia-Pacific Engagement.”
Speaking at the East-West Center in front of a VIP audience that included Hawaii members of Congress, Honolulu’s mayor, former governors, diplomats, business leaders and students, John Kerry said American saw four opportunities in the region:
Kerry also sought to assure the audience that the U.S. remains committed to the “pivot” or rebalance of America’s attention toward the Asia-Pacific, as President Barack Obama called for in 2009.
But he also insisted that the nation was still playing a very active role in other areas as well, especially global hotspots.
“We are not disengaging,” said Kerry, contending that America was more engaged today “than in any time in American history.”
Kerry’s diplomatic plate is beyond full: Iraq, Iran, China, North Korea, Thailand, the Sudan, Israel and Palestine, Ukraine and Russia, and Boko Haram and Nigeria, just to name the more pressing areas of current concern.
Meanwhile, outside the Hawaii Imin International Conference Center and under the watchful eye of lots of security, about 50 people sought to grab the secretary’s attention. They flew Tibetan and Palestinian flags, held banners that said “Free Hawaii” and signs that read “Fire Agent Deedy,” a reference to a State Department special agent currently on trial for a fatal shooting in Waikiki.
Secretary John Kerry called his late Senate colleague Dan Inouye “a patriot above all.”
Kerry made no mention of Tibet, Hawaiian independence or the ongoing Honolulu trial of Christopher Deedy. But he did say another ceasefire was in the works in Gaza.
East-West Center President Charles Morrison reminded the audience in his introductory remarks that Kerry had won 54 percent of the Hawaii vote when he unsuccessfully ran for president in 2004.
Kerry heaped praise on Morrison for being “way ahead of the curve” in seeing the global tilt toward Asia in the 1990s. He also spoke at length about the late Dan Inouye — “a patriot above all” and the man Kerry had the privilege to sit next to in the U.S. Senate.
“Hawaii was so wise to keep him in office for so many years,” Kerry said, making no mention of the protracted battle going on in Puna to fill Inouye’s seat.
While U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep Colleen Hanabusa are aiding storm victims and awaiting a second election Friday — unless Hanabusa’s lawsuit to delay the U.S. Senate vote in Puna succeeds — U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono sat in the front row at the Kerry event and was warmly recognized from the dais by Kerry.
(U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard appeared near the end of Kerry’s speech; she’s headed to Puna herself Friday.)
Kerry said it was “wonderful” to be in Hawaii, and he said he wished he could trade his business suit for aloha wear and relax. But there is no down time for the secretary.
Protesters flew Tibetan and Palestinian flags and held banners that said “Free Hawaii” and signs that read “Fire Agent Deedy.”
He arrived in Honolulu after concluding a five-day trip to Burma, Australia and the Solomon Islands, where he participated in ASEAN and East Asia Summit “ministerial meetings, bilateral consultations, and wreath-laying ceremonies at war memorials on Guadalcanal,” according to a media advisory.
After the EWC speech, Kerry was scheduled to visit U.S. Pacific Command officials.
The secretary cleared his throat several times during his speech, apologizing for the affect all his jet travel has on his voice.
He talked mostly business, naming nearly every country in Asia except Laos, Cambodia and Brunei. He mentioned China the most, insisting the U.S. could have good relations with the growing economic and military giant but also stressing the need to listen to the needs of far smaller countries. Mitigating climate change was also at the top of Kerry’s priority list.
The interest in Asia is obvious: If the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional free trade agreement is approved, said Kerry, “40 percent of world GDP will be linked by a high-standard trade agreement.”
Besides business and policy, Kerry shared some personal details.
His grandfather was born in Shanghai, which Kerry said helped make clear to him, even in Massachusetts, the “long sense of possibility” of the Far East. During his service in the U.S. Navy, he spent time at Pearl Harbor and “drove all over the island — even places I probably wasn’t supposed to.”
And he briefly touched on his service in Vietnam, mainly to tell everyone how the very mention of the country’s name no longer carries “an ominous meaning — war, huge dissent at home, families torn apart.”
Today, he said, Vietnam is “a dynamic country filled with economic opportunity. It’s a market for our businesses and our investors. It’s a classroom for our children. It has one of the largest Fulbright programs in the world. And it’s a partner in tackling regional economic and security challenges.”
Kerry made no mention of Clinton, who preceded him at State and was the last secretary to speak at the East-West Center. He closed his remarks with the inspirational story of Filipino women who resisted the dictatorship for Ferdinand Marcos and helped enable the rise of Cory Aquino, whose son is the elected president of the Philippines today.
Echoing Benigno Aquino’s words, Kerry said, “We must all carry the torch forward.”