Watch: Deputy Sec. of State Calls Focusing on Asia 'Great Challenge of Our Time'

NEW YORK, April 8, 2014 — U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns said Tuesday that whether the United States can maintain its focus on Asia amid competing pressures in the international arena will be “the great challenge of our time” and “the great test for American diplomacy across the Asia-Pacific through the rest of the Obama Administration.”

“Future generations will look back at this moment of testing and judge us by whether we had the foresight and courage to make the most of our interdependence, or whether we succumb to the familiar traps of mistrust, zero-sum politics, and conflict,” Burns said.

Burns delivered his remarks and answered questions in front of 150 guests of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a new think tank focused on creating innovative solutions related to Asia’s prosperity, security, and sustainability.

Throughout his talk, Burns emphasized the U.S. strategy of building a “strong architecture of cooperation, an overlapping and mutually reinforcing set of alliances, partnerships and multilateral institutions.”

Burns touched on several priority concerns in U.S.-Asia relations: slowing North Korea’s nuclear program, supporting free trade and economic growth, addressing environmental threats, and resolving tensions that arise from territorial and maritime disputes.

Burns pointed to the controversy over claims in the South China Sea as a case that will test Asia’s governance structures and institutions.

“Some may ask why, given the many areas of tension across this part of the world, small rocks and islands in the middle of the sea are generating so much concern and so much attention. It’s not because the future of those islands will permanently shift the regional balance of power,” Burns said.

“It’s because the way in which countries pursue their claims reveals whether the threat of force or the rule of law will govern disputes, and whether the same rules will apply to big and small countries alike.”

Asia Society Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski asked Secretary Burns about the chances that Iran and the P5+1 countries will reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Burns said “it’s not impossible to reach a comprehensive solution” but “it is going to require enormous effort and enormous commitment.”

Commenting on President Obama’s view that the changes of a solution were less than 50-50, Burns said, “Given what’s at stake and given the difficulty of getting to where we are today, the first agreement that was reached at the end of last year, breaking what had been a decades-long taboo on direct contact between the United States and Iran, I think those odds make this proposition well worth testing.”

About the Author

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Joshua Rosenfield is Director of Content Strategy with the Asia Society Policy Institute. He is based in New York.