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Diplomacy

US foreign secretary John Kerry kicks off Asia tour with trip to Seoul

US top diplomat John Kerry has arrived in Seoul to kick off his tour of Asia. During his trip, he plans to address regional tensions prompted by territorial disputes and militaristic rhetoric.

Kerry in Asia for regional talks

Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Seoul on Thursday, the first stop on his fifth trip to Asia since becoming the US' chief diplomat.

Kerry's main focus on his latest visit to the continent will include discussing solutions aimed at calming regional tensions on the Korean peninsula, as well as those sparked by China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. A recent spat between Japan and Seoul have also led to heighten tensions between the neighboring countries, raising concerns in Washington over the diplomatic implications.

Following meetings in Seoul, Kerry is to travel to Beijing and then Jakarta, where he will deliver a speech on climate change policies.

The tour has the potential to help Washington deliver on its promise of refreshing diplomatic relations with its Pacific neighbors. Both President Barack Obama and John Kerry have come under criticism from leaders on the continent for neglecting those relationships. In October, the US president cancelled his visit to two Asian summits due to a government shutdown in Washington. The US foreign secretary, for his part, has devoted a large portion of his time to negotiating a framework for Middle East peace talks.

North Korean nuclear ambitions

North Korea's nuclear ambitions continue to cause the greatest concern for South Korea and its allies and will play a prominent role in Kerry's visit to both South Korea and China, where he hopes to convince Beijing to use its influence over its communist ally. However, the main focus of Thursday's meetings in Seoul will be on current negotiations between the North and South, during which the North has shown increasing signs of belligerence.

South Korean officials are expected to brief the US foreign secretary on the outcome of a meeting which took place the day before with a North Korean delegation aimed at arranging family reunions between those separated by the Korean War. They were the first high-level talks to take place between the two nations since 2007.

Although tensions have calmed slightly on the peninsula, North Korea has once again threatened to derail upcoming family reunions over US-South Korea joint military drills, which would coincide with the event.

Pyongyang also rescinded an invitation over the weekend to a US diplomat scheduled to discuss the release of US citizen Kenneth Bae. The 45-year-old Korean-American has been imprisoned for more than a year on charges of trying to overthrow the state.

Kerry is also expected to address a recent spat with Japan over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent visit to a controversial World War Two shrine. A senior official travelling with Kerry speaking on the condition of anonymity described the diplomatic tensions as "[serving] nobody's interests."

Chinese territorial disputes

Kerry is scheduled to travel to China on Friday, is expected to address tensions on the Korean peninsula with the intention of urging Beijing to use its influence with Pyongyang to influence the situation.

He will, furthermore, address US interests in Asia, particularly focusing on US concerns over China's disputes with multiple countries in the East China Sea. Beijing's November declaration of an air defense identification zone (AZIZ) in the region has raised concerns, already heightened over the past year over a prolonged territorial dispute with Tokyo involving an island chain known as the Diaoyu islands in China and the Senkaku islands in Japan.

Kerry would be urging nations affected by the AZIZ to operate "on the basis of rules and not on the basis of might makes right," a senior official speaking on the condition of anonymity told the news agency Reuters.

"That is a guiding principle for us and our planning, on the military side as well as our broader policies, reflect that," the official added.

The air defense identification zone could restrict access to the resource-rich waters used by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Kerry is scheduled to round off his Asian tour with a visit to Jakarta, where he will deliver a speech on climate change. At the conclusion of his Asian tour, the US secretary of state is expected to travel to the United Arab Emirates before returning to the United States.

kms/crh (AP, AFP Reuters)

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