Following the assessment by the US Secretary of Defense of the situation in the Northeast Asian region, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was subsequently sent on a tour. In the period from March 16 to 19, Tillerson visited Japan, the Republic of Korea and China. The fact that two high officials of the US administration made (within a period of one and a half months) a tour in Northeast Asia certainly speaks of the continuing prioritization by the new President of the US foreign policy on Asia.
Two days prior to the trip, the Christian Science Monitor newspaper bid the head of the US foreign policy establishment farewell with statements like: “Northeast Asia and the North Korea minefield …. Secretary Tillerson will visit Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing next week, at a moment that many Northeast Asia analysts consider to be of supreme diplomatic complexity and increasingly volatile and dangerous”.
Indeed, such an overall and blanketed assessment could be made if we removed “the North Korea” from being the subject. The North Eastern Asian region has certainly become a minefield. This is primarily because it is becoming increasingly impossible to coordinate all the interests of the world’s leading players around the globe overall and in this region in particular. Of course, the regional Enfant Terrible represented by the DPRK is also planting its part of the mines here, and is generally a cause of concern for the “big regional players.”
But, firstly, the North Korea’s importance in the affairs of Northeast Asia is secondary. And, secondly, it is likely that most of the mentioned “players” certainly derive some benefit from the DPRK’s notorious “unpredictabilit
Pyongyang is playing no role whatsoever in yet another aggravation of Japanese-South Korean relations. Instead, the “unfriendly” state (that is, quite common, not aggravated by the current actualization of the “historical” factor) has for decades stood directly in the way of Washington implementing its plans for the formation of a tripartite US-Japan-the Republic of Korea alliance. And getting at least a hint at the prospect of solving this problem was undoubtedly one of the main goals of the Tillerson’s tour.
A complete novice in the sphere of international diplomacy, Rex Tillerson demonstrated the ability to say exactly what a person responsible for the foreign policy of the leading world power was expected (and to a great extent anticipated) to communicate in all three capitals. This is given that each of them, we repeat, is in a complex relationship with the other two.
In Tokyo, during a joint press conference with his colleague Fumio Kishida, the Japanese side was pleased (once again) to hear about the desire of the new US administration to “strengthen the US presence in the region and reinforce the Japanese-America
At the same time, Kishida’s words on Japan’s acceptance of “greater responsibility” in the bilateral alliance fully corresponded to Donald Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric on the need to increase the allies’ contribution to the allied military spending.
Both ministers expressed a desire to improve relations with China. However, the same theses on the extension of Art. 5 on the Senkaku Islands, the importance of US-Japanese “cooperation” in the East and South China Seas (“where the situation is raising concerns”), and the need to adhere to the law of the seas, substantially counterbalance these general wishes. For (by default) there is no doubt on the final destination where the “fears” of both China’s allies and political opponents are being directed.
As for the “trilateral [US, Japan and the Republic of Korea] cooperation,” it seems that it will not go beyond the “counteraction to challenges” on the part of the DPRK. This is evidenced by the streamlined nature of Tillerson’s response to the issue of the US’s assessment of yet another exacerbation of Japanese-South Korean relations in connection with (the subsequent) actualization of the “comfort women” theme. The distinguished guest only expressed his wish that the two allies “would overcome this painful historical problem.”
Rex Tillerson’s decisive moment during his stay in Seoul was his statement, in which he excluded any possibility of direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang on nuclear issues and testified to the end of the period of American “strategic patience” towards the DPRK. So far, however, it is unclear what this will mean specifically and, in particular, how far the US is going to divert from this strategy.
The Chinese stage of the US Secretary of State’s tour appeared fundamentally different from that of Japan and South Korea. In Tokyo and Seoul, Tillerson talked with interlocutors with whom the allied format of US relations has long been formed and is now subject to only a few adjustments.
In China, however, Tillerson dealt with people representing the world’s second most powerful state and Washington’s main geopolitical opponent. With respect to relations with Beijing, Donald Trump’s team will have to resolve the same issue that during the 8 years of the previous administration gradually moved to the first place in the list of US foreign policy problems, namely: how to react to the very fact that China has become the second most powerful nation on the globe?
At the meeting with Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, Tillerson once again uttered the words that his audience (this time in Beijing) expected to hear from him. In particular, he spoke on the need to develop bilateral relations on the basis of “mutual respect,” as well as not causing damage to each other (a sort of win-win cooperation – the formula used recently by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi.
These good words at the level of rhetoric were meant to create the necessary positive background for the forthcoming first meeting between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. For the same purpose, there was an announcement on the beginning (in March of this year) of construction in China of an assembly plant for the B-737 passenger plane by Boeing. The future plant will have a capacity of 100 aircraft under construction, of which the first will appear at the end of 2018.
All this, of course, is despite the striking discrepancy between this information and the new American President’s main pre-election campaign rhetoric on the need to attract foreign investment to the US economy and prioritize domestic job creation.
Nevertheless, this discrepancy can be explained by the fact that the aforementioned transaction was concluded before D. Trump joined the office of president. However, the reality on the ground has more than once overturned pre-election rhetorics.
On the other hand, Tillerson’s categorical refusal to discuss the issue of the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system on the South Korean territory (along with the announced conclusion of the “strategy of patience” with respect to the DPRK), a topic that Beijing finds very sensitive, substantially negates the significance of his kind words and several of his actions.
Moreover, in March, Washington once again tried to press China on the issue of Taiwan (when the information on the upcoming sale to Taipei of the next batch of US weapons for $1 billion was subsequently purposely leaked. Adding to this, the US then sent Head of the Pacific Command (USPACOM), Admiral H. Harris on a visit to Nepal.
H. Harris arrived in Nepal on the occasion of regular exercises on a training program for servicemen carrying out UN “peace missions.” The training center, where the representatives of 28 countries (among whom there are no Chinese) are currently being trained, was established with the assistance of USPACOM.
Let us remind you that for a long time, the two Asian giants India and China have been involved in a struggle for influence on Nepal. And has the United States now joined them? If yes, then asking the question of on whose side and against whom is superfluous.
Apparently, Tillerson has continued a long-standing diplomatic ping-pong with his Chinese interlocutors with respect to the North Korean nuclear missile program. If China is of the opinion that direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington are necessary to solve this problem, then eventually, the two sides will insist on a decisive role by China, which allegedly has the necessary influence on the DPRK to accomplish this.
In a Global Times article devoted to the new American approaches to the problems of the North Korean nuclear missile program, attention was drawn to the illustration. The picture shows three frightened faces (implying China, Japan and South Korea), watching with horror as a hand tries to split a nuclear rocket-nut using a club with the US flag.
Here, there are obvious allusions to the words uttered by Tillerson in Seoul, when he expressed the US readiness to solve the DPRK nuclear missile program issue using military force. Moreover, his thesis on the departure from the “strategy of patience” with respect to North Korea might, of course, give rise to an association with a certain subject of international relations, which has gone mad on the grounds of long-term failures in solving some important problem.
Nevertheless, it seems that the inadequacy of the main “solver” of various world problems in the artistic image is still somewhat exaggerated. At least, it’s better to keep hoping for it.
In general, Tillerson’s Asian tour became an important stage in the cognition of the external world by the new American administration. As it turns out, this external world is impossible to ignore, and without considering the ongoing processes in it, the “America first” dream is impossible to realize.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”