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David Stilwell retired from the military in 2015 with the rank of brigadier general. Photo: US Air Force

United States names former defence attaché to Beijing as top diplomat for East Asia

  • Retired air force fighter pilot David Stilwell speaks Chinese and Korean and has knowledge of regional issues
  • Appointment fills position left vacant since Daniel Russel stepped down in April 2017

The United States Senate on Thursday confirmed former air force general David Stilwell to be the State Department’s top diplomat for East Asia, a post that had remained unfilled for more than two years despite major challenges in the region.

The vote to approve Stilwell as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs came nearly eight months after US President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate the former fighter pilot, who speaks Korean, Mandarin and some Japanese, for the job.

The post has been vacant since Daniel Russel stepped down in April 2017, in spite of a major crisis over North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and worsening relations and a trade war with China, the world’s second-largest economy and Washington’s main rival in the region.

Stilwell will also be faced with formulating a US response to a crisis in the former British colony of Hong Kong resulting from a proposed extradition law by China.

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Stilwell retired from the US Air Force in 2015 with the rank of brigadier general after 35 years of service.

He has since served as director of the China Strategic Focus Group at the US Indo-Pacific command headquarters in Hawaii and as an adjunct senior fellow at the East-West Centre in Honolulu.

Stilwell joined the air force in 1980 as a Korean linguist and served in South Korea before earning degrees in Asian studies and the Chinese language.

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He also served with the air force in Japan, as well in a senior Asia planning role at the Pentagon and as defence attaché in Beijing.

Trump, at the urging of then secretary of state Rex Tillerson, had previously nominated Russel’s former deputy, Susan Thornton, for the assistant secretary’s post.

She was seen by administration hawks as being too soft in her approach to China and withdrew before the Senate could vote on whether to confirm her.

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Lu Xiang, a specialist on US issues with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Stilwell was familiar with Asian issues and described his time in Beijing, from 2011 to 2013, as “a period when China and the US had good military cooperation and communications”.

“The confirmation of his nomination as the state department’s top diplomat for East Asia is a good sign to improve the US’ understanding of China issues. We hope he will make a positive contribution to the United States’ China policy,” Lu said.

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: US picks its top East Asia diplomat after long vacancy