Tillerson will look to create a broader international campaign against North Korea
Tillerson will also be working to improve ties with China
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson begins his first official trip to Asia Tuesday aiming to propose a new approach to the North Korean nuclear threat and to cope with Chinese anger about US attempts to protect allies from Pyongyang.
Tillerson, who arrives in Tokyo on Wednesday followed by stops in Seoul and Beijing, is also in Asia to lay the groundwork for an expected US visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in April.
Revamping the international approach to North Korea is expected to be the top US diplomat’s central focus, though, as leader Kim Jung Un takes increasingly aggressive steps to expand his military and nuclear capabilities.
Tillerson will tell allies that North Korea’s efforts to develop long-range missiles that can reach London and Los Angeles as easily as they can target Tokyo and Seoul will require broadening the current regional strategy.
He will explore with regional powers the creation of a broader international campaign similar to the Obama administration’s global approach on the nuclear deal with Iran, according to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the trip. Key to that will be more European participation, one official said.
“He is taking a fresh and deep look at the North Korea policy and approach,” another official said. “It is important to engage with the Chinese and other partners, but as North Korean pushes forward toward a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, this becomes a global threat, not regional.”
Trump excoriated the Iran deal on the campaign trail, and his administration has been generally hostile to multilateral approaches and organizations, however. While bringing in multiple players to rein in a rogue regime can make it harder for a country such as Iran or North Korea to find partners to work with and thereby contribute to an agreement’s success, it also can make deal-making more difficult and less responsive to unilateral steps. The administration’s dislike of the Iran deal raises questions about how Tillerson would adopt this approach to the Trump era.
China ties at issue
Tillerson will also be working to improve ties with China, even as he juggles differences with Beijing over its territorial claims in the South China Sea – which the US rejects – and disagreements on how to handle North Korea.
Tillerson has already made a mark in this area, having successfully defused a major point of potential friction between the Trump administration and Beijing by having the US recommit to the “One China” policy. After the President seemed to flirt with formally improving relations with Taiwan, which could jeopardize the formulation in which Washington only recognizes a unified China, Tillerson worked with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to convince Trump to back the bedrock policy of relations between the US and China.
But Tillerson could face pressure from China about his proposed new approach to North Korea. For years China has tried to define North Korea as a regional issue to be solved within the Six Party talks that include the US, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. China has also played up the idea, officials said, that the threat is aimed at the 28,500 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on the Korean Peninsula.
Tillerson will argue that intercontinental ballistic missile capability, which US officials believe North Korea could soon perfect, threatens the entire West, making it necessary for Europe – which has joined in applying UN sanctions – to step up involvement.
While Tillerson’s policy is still being developed, the administration officials said the campaign against Iran is a model and that Tillerson will seek to include Europe and others in diplomatic, economic and defensive military measures against North Korea.
Officials say the new approach could also bring more pressure to bear on China to use its own levers of influence against North Korea.
“North Korea will soon be in reach of ICBM capacity. If they do, they can strike Los Angeles or London,” one of the administration officials said. “The Six Party Talks structure doesn’t make sense anymore. And the Chinese won’t be able to only speak to this in a regional context.”
Tense uncertainty in Asia
As Tillerson travels East, he’ll be working against a backdrop of tense uncertainty.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, tested its most powerful nuclear device yet in September. After violating UN sanctions last month by testing a new, medium long-range ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear weapon, North Korea followed that up by firing four intermediate range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on March 7.
A day later, the US announced the arrival of the first pieces of the advanced THAAD missile defense system in South Korea – a move that led Beijing to take a series of punitive economic steps against South Korean companies. Meanwhile, Japan has announced that in May it will dispatch its largest warship into the contested South China Sea in its largest show of naval force since World War II.
It is, said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a “perfect storm of tensions in northeast Asia.” And it’s happening at a time when US policy in the region is still being defined.
“The Trump administration is formulating its North Korea policy amidst accelerating threats and deteriorating relations in the region,” Klingner said.
A State Department official said there has been widespread acknowledgment that the past 15 years of US policy on North Korea – a carrot-and-stick medley of sanctions, incentives and aid – hasn’t been effective.
“We’re trying to come up with what the approach of the new administration is going to be,” the official said.
More broadly, the Obama administration embraced a “pivot” to Asia that saw the US devote more instruments of hard and soft power to demonstrate the importance Washington places on the region and securing its allies there.
For now, Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis has been delivering a message of continuity on that front, telling allies that “the United States remains a Pacific power and we will be active and engaged in Asia in this administration” and committed to defending allies, the State Department official said.
Flexing American muscle
And even as he tries to smooth relations with China, Tillerson is also primed to flex American muscle, perhaps by discussing the possible expansion of US sanctions to target Chinese companies that do business with North Korea, the State Department official said – though he won’t be making announcements.
“Certainly we’ve talked to the Chinese about these issues before and will continue, I’m sure,” the official said, “as well as with our other partners in Seoul and Tokyo.”
Sandy Pho of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute for China and the United States said that staffing shortages, the pressing nature of the North Korean threat and divisions within the Trump administration on China has led the White House to fall back on Obama administration positions for now.
“The reason why you are hearing more of the same is that they haven’t been able to do a comprehensive review and this is all happening so quickly,” Pho said. Many leadership positions at the State Department remain unfilled, including in the Asia bureau.
“They’ve been focused on ISIS, but North Korea’s latest saber-rattling is now forcing them to look at Asia,” Pho said.
Then there is a split among those who advise Trump. The head of the White House Trade Council, Peter Navarro, and Trump chief strategist Stephen Bannon take very hawkish views on China.
Others, including Tillerson, Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the new director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, seem to take a more pragmatic view, said Pho.
“They’re not necessarily panda-huggers,” said Pho, using a nickname for pro-China policymakers, “but they’re more traditionally pro-trade.”