Asia trip's test for Tillerson: Not just what he says, but who listens

The former CEO is traveling to volatile Northeast Asia at a moment of diplomatic complexity. China in particular will be gauging whether the secretary of State has the ear of President Trump.

Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters
President Trump greets Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin (C) after delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress Feb. 28, 2017.

When Rex Tillerson emerged as President Trump’s pick for secretary of State, many in Washington wondered how the former ExxonMobil CEO with no formal diplomatic experience would do when thrown into one of the world’s hot diplomatic caldrons.

Say, for example, Northeast Asia and the North Korea minefield.

We may be about to find out.

Secretary Tillerson will visit Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing next week, at a moment that many Northeast Asia analysts consider to be of supreme diplomatic complexity and increasingly volatile and dangerous.

“At each of his stops [Tillerson] will find mounting concerns about a disturbingly long list of challenges to maintaining peace in Northeast Asia,” says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow specializing in Japanese and Korean affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“The list starts with North Korea’s accelerating quest to target the United States with a nuclear weapon, but you also have allies who are increasingly nervous about US capabilities after years of cuts to the defense budget. There are reasons,” he adds, “that [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis made the region his first foreign trip and that Tillerson is following him so soon.”

Yet even as Tillerson’s foreign policy acumen is being tested, his hosts – especially the Chinese – may be focusing on an attribute they consider even more important to his success as a diplomat: how much he has the ear of the new US president.

“At each stop, when Tillerson is with our allies or with China, a great power, they are going to be wondering if what he has to say has weight in the White House,” says David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

This will not be Tillerson’s first foreign trip as secretary of State – he traveled briefly (and almost unnoticed) to Germany and also visited Mexico last month – but it may be his first trial by fire.

Missile defenses anger China

Already worried by North Korea’s stepped-up pace of nuclear and missile testing, the region was further rattled by the North’s launch Sunday of four missiles that crashed into the Sea of Japan within 200 miles of Japan’s coastline. Experts now believe the test was a simulated attack on a US base in Japan. The US has just over 50,000 troops in Japan at seven different bases.

China condemned the missile launch as it has previous missile and weapons tests. But at the same time Beijing is furious about US deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile-defense system in South Korea – a deployment the US says is aimed solely at protecting South Korea and US troops there from a North Korean missile launch, but which the Chinese government grumbles it suspects is also aimed at countering Chinese missiles.

China has shown signs recently of moving more significantly on measures to punish Pyongyang for its aggressive behavior, as for example by cutting coal imports from North Korea. But Beijing is now hinting it could reconsider its cooperation on North Korea over the THAAD deployment, and is already taking punitive economic measures against South Korea.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pressing for increased defense spending – a move that is not sitting well with either Beijing or Seoul, both of which worry about a militarily assertive Japan.

And South Korea, in the throes of political upheaval over President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, is worried about the North’s activities – and officially welcomes the THAAD deployment. At the same time it is concerned that deployment of the missile defense system could upset ties to China, the country’s biggest economic partner.

A snap presidential election, which would be called if President Park is removed from office, would almost certainly aggravate growing rifts over the country’s national security policy and the US role in it.

How close is he to Trump?

All these issues will confront Tillerson in the three Asian capitals. But from his hosts’ perspective, perhaps the biggest question will not be about North Korea or regional relations at all – but about where the new secretary of State fits in the Trump administration’s foreign-policy hierarchy, some regional experts say.

“They’ll be sizing up this newcomer who may not have the broad range of diplomatic experience the secretary of State usually has,” says Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Lampton. “But what they most want to assess is: How close is Tillerson to the president? Where does he fit in the decision-making process of a mercurial leader they know listens to some of the people around him and not to others?”

On that score, the early signs have not been good for Tillerson. Little evidence has filtered out of the White House suggesting the secretary of State has broken into an inner circle dominated by political strategist Steve Bannon and Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

But some say Japan and South Korea will be more optimistic than they might have been over Tillerson’s visit, largely because of recent reassuring statements Trump has issued that calmed concerns about a less supportive US.

“Some of the things Trump and Tillerson have said about rock-solid support for our Asian allies have removed the deep concerns over things Trump said during the campaign,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Mr. Klingner. Trump the candidate suggested allies with US troops on their soil might be required to pay more or lose those troops, and he said it might be time for Japan and South Korea to come out from under the American nuclear umbrella and procure their own nuclear weapons.

With recent statements from Trump as president, “I’d say the deep concerns are gone – but the anxiety remains,” Klingner says. Just back from a trip to the region, he says one South Korean official memorably told him, “Our concerns could return at the drop of a tweet.”

A need to erase doubts

Klingner says Tillerson should take a firm stance in all three capitals he’ll visit: He should make it clear the US intends to keep ratcheting up financial and other pressures on North Korea over its weapons testing, and he should emphasize to Beijing that the missile defense systems set for South Korea are in no way a deterrent aimed at China and will be deployed.

Moreover, Tillerson should squelch any lingering doubts in Tokyo and Seoul about US support, Klingner adds, and he should assure both allies that the US is ready to get tougher on Pyongyang. For example, he says, by slapping secondary sanctions on Chinese individuals and entities who flout UN Security Council prohibitions on certain trade and product transfers to North Korea.

Lampton says Beijing will want to seem accommodating and cooperative on North Korea, but says Tillerson should not expect any breakthroughs from the Chinese. “Anything that would change North Korea’s behavior is probably way beyond what Beijing is willing to do,” he says.

Besides, Lampton adds, the Chinese will want to evaluate Tillerson’s relative position of power and influence with Trump before they do anything meaningful with him.

“In China, politics are not institutionalized, it’s personalized, and as part of that the Chinese are used to evaluating the relations of a supreme leader and his subordinates, determining who has influence and who doesn’t, and acting accordingly,” Lampton says. “The problem for Tillerson is that, far from empowering him, the president has really undermined his clout.”

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