Can Tillerson’s East Asia Trip Break the Deadlock?

If U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is capable of achieving a significant consensus with China, Japan and South Korea on his upcoming trip to East Asia, China’s State Council will have more of a voice on the U.S. policy in East Asia. President Donald Trump potentially wants to respond to the challenge of the Korean nuclear problem by diplomatic means more than anything else.

On March 14, the new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set out for Asia and will visit Japan, South Korea and China in succession. His visit to China begins four days later on March 18th.

Tillerson’s trip to Asia follows an earlier visit by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis to Japan and South Korea. While there is no doubt this is Trump’s government reiterating its East Asia policy, it also highlights one important aspect of that policy: the U.S. still lacks a clear Asia-Pacific strategy.

What is very clear is that the issues on the Korean Peninsula are the main reason for Tillerson’s visit. Simply put, Trump’s government has still not formed a clear Asia-Pacific policy. The expression of his views during the run-up to the election gave the Asia-Pacific a little indeterminacy, but since Trump came to power he has been busy with internal affairs and has not spent much time thinking about his Asia-Pacific policy.

Trump opposes the Obama administration’s “Rebalancing the Asia-Pacific” strategy, but he has yet to create his own policy, at all. The indeterminacy of the US’s Asia-Pacific policy poses a challenge to the region’s “safety belt,”which South Korea and Japan have maintained by spending a great amount of energy and resources to counter the shock brought about by Trump’s election.

After Defense Secretary Mattis took office, he visited Japan and South Korea. Rather than saying that the visit was to settle problems, he said it was to stabilize the U.S.-Japanese and U.S.-South Korean military alliances which calmed these two countries. Mattis’ visit to Japan and South Korea is intended to reaffirm America’s traditional promise to its allies, but America’s position in facing new circumstances on the peninsula remains unclear. Although he likes to tweet himself, Trump has only ever posted two responses on Twitter.

The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department all have a voice in the future of the U.S.’s East Asia policy, but a subdued Tillerson has been trying to keep a low profile. Thus, there have been rumors in the media that Tillerson is not as good as he appeared to be. Trump’s son-in-law is now an important figure in American foreign policy. While Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., is experienced in managing a company, he is considered by the outside world to be lacking in diplomatic experience. Therefore, against this sort of background, Tillerson’s East Asia visit is both a duty of the U.S. State Department and an important chance for the Chinese State Council to have a say in the shape of the future of U.S. East Asia policy.

Laying The Foundations of Trump’s East Asia Policy

If Tillerson is capable of creating a common understanding with China, Japan, and South Korea during this visit, if he is even capable of compromise, no doubt the PRC State Council will be able to have more of a say on U.S. East Asian foreign policy. Trump may also wish to respond to the challenge of the North Korean nuclear problem via diplomatic means more than ever. Conversely, if the Pentagon gains the upper hand, this will no doubt intensify the trend of U.S.-Japan-South Korean military alliances.

U.S.-Sino relations are the most important bilateral relations in the world, and this is even more so the case in the Korean Peninsula. It is a “zero-sum game” between the U.S. and China on the peninsula, but it is an issue on which there can be cooperation. Taking the phone call between U.S. and Chinese heads of states as an opportunity after Trump came to power, interactions between all levels have continued on as usual. After Tillerson took up his position, he has communicated with Chinese diplomat and State Council member Yang Jie Chi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi a number of times. China and the U.S. already have established cooperative relations to control the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

According to Japan and South Korea, Tillerson still needs to reaffirm the US.-Japanese and U.S.-South Korean cooperative relations during his East Asia visit, especially the promise made to U.S. allies. However, one of these two countries is unceasingly striving for “national normalization” under Abe’s government, while the president of the other has been impeached and a new election is to be held. Confronting the current situation, Tillerson requires China’s cooperation more than that of any other country. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has praised Tillerson for being a person capable of listening attentively. If, during the East Asia visit, Tillerson listens attentively to the opinions of all countries while also raising the requests of the U.S., the current deadlock could be broken if all parties work hard at it, thus creating a comparably good foundation for Trump’s East Asia policy. This is Tillerson’s task.

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