The Strategist

Tillerson finishes Asian trip, leaves many questions unanswered

03/21/2017 - 14:42

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finished his first trip to Asia by visiting Japan, South Korea and China. The journey took place against the backdrop of impeachment to the President of South Korea, a new missile launched by the DPRK and growing tensions between Asian allies of the United States and China. The main result was that the White House confirmed its readiness to abandon the old anti-Chinese rhetoric of Donald Trump and to hold a meeting of the two countries’ leaders in the near future. With regard to the DPRK, Washington intends to pursue a policy of deterrence, not excluding stricter sanctions and even emergence of nuclear weapons in Tokyo and Seoul.

Unprecedented Asian trip of 64-year-old Rex Tillerson, ex-top manager of Exxon Mobil, became the most serious test for him after assuming the post of US State Department chief on February 1. Tillerson was accompanied by only one journalist, a correspondent of the American edition of the Independent Journal Review. Every country that Tillerson visited has had something to display, be it uncertain situation in Seoul caused by the dramatic resignation of President Pak Kun He, or high-thrust rocket engine test conducted in North Korea on March 18.

In Beijing, Rex Tillerson was faced with a difficult conversation on how to understand Donald Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric, as well as his own tough stance against Beijing, which he displayed at the hearings in the US Congress during his confirmation as Head of the State Department.

Rex Tillerson’s stay in Seoul was limited by a short, and somehow embarrassing, programme. South Korean media reported that the Secretary of State allegedly refused a lunch and dinner with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and temporary President Hwang Kyo-ahn because of fatigue. At the same time, media emphasized that Mr. Tillerson had the opportunity to hold lengthy meetings with his Japanese counterparts. In this regard, Rex Tillerson was forced to re-focus his attention on the South Korean side. In an interview with Independent Journal Review, he outlined his own version of what happened: "They never invited us to dinner, then at the last moment they realized that this does not look good in the public eye, and in the end they spread the statement that the dinner did not take place, because I was tired".  

However, in the same interview, he rejected an assumption that the new administration of the White House is paying more attention to Japan than to South Korea, calling both countries important allies in the Asia-Pacific region (in April, US Vice President Mike Pence will head out to Tokyo and Seoul).

The biggest resonance was caused by his statements concerning strengthening of security measures in Northeast Asia in connection with the last test of the rocket engine. This development will allow North Korea to get its own delivery vehicles comparable to the potential of world powers (Pyongyang even called this event historic). Commenting on the North Korean "March 18 revolution", Mr. Tillerson expressed an opinion that the previous wait-and-see policy of the US towards the DPRK "has exhausted itself", and that Washington will have to increase pressure on Pyongyang using political-economic and military methods. He, however, did not specify what measures could probably be used.

In addition, Rex Tillerson hinted that as the North Korean threat is growing, Japan and South Korea may face a need to have nuclear deterrents. The Secretary of State did not delve into details; neither he specified that Tokyo and Seoul could renounce the nuclear-free status or they could place American nuclear weapons on their territory.

However, the final part of Rex Tillerson's trip was the most intriguing. Specifically, we are saying about his two-day visit to Beijing and a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Recall that change of power in the White House caused new tension in the relations between Washington and Beijing. Dialogue between the two states become strained thanks to Donald Trump’s tough statements to Beijing during the election race, and his telephone conversation with the leader of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen in December last year. The first since 1979 talk of the US President-elect and Head of "island China", unrecognized by PRC, gave rise to speculation that Washington is ready to move away from the one-China policy that all previous administrations adhered to.

However, during his visit to Beijing, Rex Tillerson tried to avoid getting into trouble and confined himself only to a brief mention of issue of human rights and religious freedoms in China. Appearing before journalists, the US Secretary of State and Chinese President Xi Jinping demonstrated that there are no cataclysms in the relations between the two powers. "You said that the Sino-US relations can only be friendly, and I appreciate it," the Chinese leader said and added: "Our cooperation is going in the direction we want it to develop. We both hope for a new era of constructive interaction".