Top US diplomat Rex Tillerson eyes debut trip to Japan, South Korea and China this month

During a visit to Beijing, Tillerson plans to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and possibly with President Xi Jinping, according to diplomatic sources

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 10:38am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 11:31pm

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to visit Japan, South Korea and China later this month mainly for talks on North Korean issues, diplomatic sources said.

In what would be his first trip to the region since becoming US President Donald Trump’s top diplomat on February 1, Tillerson is arranging a visit to Japan on March 17 and 18 for talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, the sources said Friday.

The planned trip comes as the Trump administration is reportedly reviewing the US policy toward North Korea, ranging from putting the country back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism to use of military force and regime change to curb a nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang.

During a visit to Beijing, Tillerson plans to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and possibly with President Xi Jinping, according to the sources.

Beijing has not confirmed the timing of Tillerson’s planned trip.

However, on Tuesday in Washington, Tillerson and China State Councillor Yang Jiechi affirmed the importance of a “constructive” relationship and of “regular high-level engagement” between the world’s two largest economies, the State Department said.

In their first meeting since Tillerson took office, Tillerson and Yang “discussed areas of mutual concern, including North Korea’s nuclear programmes,” as well as bilateral economic ties, the department said, without providing details.

On his trip Tillerson is expected to urge China, which has considerable economic leverage with North Korea, to strengthen pressure on North Korea. Trump has complained Beijing was not doing enough to press Pyongyang to rein in its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Tillerson also plans to seek China’s approval of the planned deployment in South Korea of an advanced US missile defence system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, or THAAD, as part of a greater deterrence effort against North Korea.

Tao Wenzhao, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Tillerson’s Beijing trip would be another sign that the US-China relations were on track to stabilise.

“We are still in the middle of the transition period for China-US relations, which usually lasts three to six months after a new US president takes office, and both countries are still trying to test each other’s bottom lines through frequent diplomatic exchanges,” he said.

He said both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were likely to meet Tillerson due to the importance Beijing attached to bilateral ties with the United States.

Despite Trump’s China-bashing rhetoric during his election campaign and his initial questioning of Washington’s longstanding one-China policy, “Trump has apparently refrained from singling out China recently and adopted a more cautious approach in dealing with China due to the importance of the bilateral ties,” Tao said.

Following Yang’s visit to the White House last week, Tillerson’s visit would help senior officials from Beijing and Washington establish personal relations and seek understanding on major issues, including key flashpoints such as North Korea and the deployment of the controversial missile defence system THAAD in South Korea, according to Tao.

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In the planned meeting in Tokyo, Tillerson and Kishida are likely to discuss the specific timing of a visit to Japan by Trump this year, according to the sources.

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In Seoul, Tillerson plans to hold talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se at which North Korea’s weapons development as well as the February 13 killing of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Malaysia are likely to be on top of the agenda.

Trump administration officials have said “all options” are under consideration to deal with North Korea, a departure from a policy of so-called “strategic patience” pursued by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama.

Obama’s policy of strategic patience – or waiting for North Korea to change its behaviour under the pressure of sanctions – has been widely regarded as ineffective in curbing its missile and nuclear weapon development.

Last year alone, North Korea launched more than 20 ballistic missiles as well as conducting two atomic tests, including its most powerful to date.

Last month, Pyongyang test-launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile in violation of UN Security Council resolutions that expressly prohibit the country’s ballistic missile and nuclear programmes - an act that many analysts see as a test of Trump’s North Korea policy.

The February 12 launch was followed by the killing of Kim Jong-nam in which Pyongyang’s involvement is suspected. Malaysian police have determined that the highly toxic VX nerve agent was used in the incident at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.