Tillerson’s first East Asia tour does little to put his hosts at ease
US secretary of state fails to leave impression of being indispensable point-of-contact within the Trump administration
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just finished his inaugural visit to East Asia as President Donald Trump’s top diplomat, visiting Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing. On this trip, Tillerson had two overriding tasks.
In Tokyo and Seoul, he was to reassure two allies who have been left unsettled by a fast-advancing North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear threat. In Beijing, he was to continue work that began with Trump’s phone call with President Xi Jinping in February toward setting up a new modus operandi between Washington and Beijing.
Going into the trip, Tillerson had already raised eyebrows by refusing to take along a conventional press attachment, opting instead to bring along a lone reporter from a right-leaning publication known to be favourable to the administration.
In Tokyo, on the first leg of his visit to the region, Tillerson immediately grabbed headlines for promising a “new approach” to the North Korean question. The former CEO of ExxonMobil and now secretary of state did not clarify the details of what this “new approach” might entail, but he did acknowledge that the Trump administration had all the options on the table with regard to North Korea, including possible pre-emptive military action.
This in itself is not unusual. Senior officials in the Bush and Obama administration also promised early on to proffer a different approach to the seemingly intractable problem of North Korea. Also, the Trump administration’s ongoing review of US policy towards North Korea, which has been ongoing since early February, is not an aberration in its consideration of military options. Policy reviews tend to go back to the drawing board and consider the entire toolkit of US options.
Like his counterpart in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, Tillerson sought to reassure his Japanese interlocutors, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, that the United States remained committed to supporting Japan against the North Korean threat.
In Seoul, however, Tillerson may have fallen short of completing his reassurance task. According to Korean media reports, Tillerson cut short his time with acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se because of “fatigue.”
Given the criticism he had faced during his confirmation hearings for his lack of preparedness and general inexperience in the realm of foreign policy, Tillerson succumbing to fatigue in South Korea – an ally in political flux following the impeachment of president Park Geun-hye and under a direct North Korean threat – was far from a positive first impression.
Tillerson later clarified that reports of his “fatigue” were choreographed by the South Korean side, but the damage had already been done. (And incidentally, if Tillerson had been accompanied by a broader press contingent, he may have been able to control the messaging instead of letting the South Korean rationale stand for more than 24 hours.)
In Beijing, on the final leg of his Asia tour, Tillerson faced the task of standing up to a US competitor on certain bilateral issues, including trade, while seeking cooperation on North Korea. China has additionally been more vocal about its preferred mode of resolving the North Korean crisis in recent weeks, which includes a return to the long-defunct six-party talks and the US and South Korea ending their joint military exercises in return for a North Korean freeze on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development.
Complicating Tillerson’s visit to Beijing, Trump, in his typical style, took to Twitter to say that “China has done little to help” on the North Korea issue. Tillerson later noted that he had not been notified that the tweet was incoming and was caught off-guard.
Throughout his trip, South Korea, Japan and China alike were looking for ways to gauge Tillerson’s real influence in the Trump foreign policy machine. His early weeks suggested that he would be far more marginal to the process of US foreign policymaking than his immediate predecessors in the Obama administration. His time in these three capitals wasn’t entirely unproductive, but Tillerson hasn’t successfully set himself up as an indispensable point-of-contact within the Trump administration unlike Mattis during his early-February tour to Seoul and Tokyo.
For now, Tillerson remains an outsider and US allies and adversaries in Asia will remain uneasy about the Trump administration’s plans for the region.