Elephants in the Room

5 Questions That Underpin Rex Tillerson’s Asia Trip

Good diplomacy is often about answering the questions that aren’t formally raised.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes his seat for a meeting with his Japanes and South Korean counterpart at the World Conference Center February 16, 2017 in Bonn, Germany.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes his diplomatic debut at a G20 gathering in Germany on February 16, 2017 where his counterparts hope to find out what "America First" means for the rest of the world. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes his seat for a meeting with his Japanes and South Korean counterpart at the World Conference Center February 16, 2017 in Bonn, Germany. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes his diplomatic debut at a G20 gathering in Germany on February 16, 2017 where his counterparts hope to find out what "America First" means for the rest of the world. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

In discussions around Tokyo and Beijing over the past two weeks I heard high expectations for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s forthcoming visit to Japan, South Korea, and China. The nuanced points Will Inboden made in his post on the secretary on Tuesday are not lost on key government officials in Asia. Last week both the Chinese and Japanese governments heaped praise on Tillerson in advance of his visit. Winning the admiration of both China and Japan is a hat trick no secretary of state since Colin Powell has achieved.

That said, I was also quietly asked a series of questions about the administration that the secretary’s counterparts might be hesitant to ask him in person (except maybe over cups of sake, soju, or baiju). None of these merit a public statement by the secretary, but they will be lingering in the background.

Are you winning? The administration would probably contest this characterization, but senior officials in Asia see an epic battle brewing between the internationalists in the cabinet and the mercantilist ideologues in the White House. They want Tillerson to win and will do what they can to ensure a positive outcome for him on this trip. This goes for Japan, Korea, and China.

How real is the commitment to Japan? Japanese officials were relieved in February that President Donald Trump reaffirmed the American commitment to defend Japan (including the contested islands administered by Japan) after stating as a candidate that he might not defend allies who refused to pay more. Tokyo was also satisfied that Trump reversed his earlier statements and agreed to uphold the “One China” policy that every American president as followed since normalization with Beijing in 1979. At the same time, the Japanese government has been carefully tracking China’s approval process for the Trump trademark as well as major real estate negotiations between the Anbang Corporation and the Kushner Companies. Breakthroughs in both negotiations immediately after the president reaffirmed the One China policy raised alarms in Tokyo that future business deals might directly affect Japanese interests in the Senkaku Islands or elsewhere. Tokyo may be wrong, but this shadow hangs over the significant advances made when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump played 36 holes of golf at Mar-a-Lago.

How real is the One China policy? Beijing was no less relieved at the president’s reaffirmation of the One China policy last month, but knows that the United States could interpret that policy widely going forward. Beijing interprets the “third communiqué” with President Ronald Reagan in 1982 as meaning that arms sales to Taiwan should decrease, but that is not what Reagan meant. Beijing suspects that the Trump administration will approve a robust new package of equipment for Taiwan — as the administration should, given the Chinese military threat. China will then have to choose how to calibrate its response. With the 19th Party Congress coming up in the fall, Chinese President Xi Jinping does not want a distracting fight with the United States, but will also have to exhibit the appropriate nationalist fervor regarding unification with Taiwan. Tillerson’s tone this week will start to set the context for that coming contretemps, requiring both toughness and positive vision for relations going forward.

Does the administration have an economic strategy in Asia? The White House dumped the Trans-Pacific Partnership on day one and has shown no appetite for the ongoing Bilateral Investment Treaty negotiations with China (based on the flawed argument that a better investment environment in China will cost jobs in the United States). So what is America’s economic strategy in Asia now? Tillerson has a strong reputation from his time at ExxonMobil and stated clearly in his hearings that he supports free trade. It will probably take months if not years for the administration and Congress to begin patching together a new economic strategy, but “please stand by” will not be enough of an answer. One possible placeholder with Japan is a new economic strategy dialogue that Trump and Abe established between Vice President Mike Pence and Deputy Japanese Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso. The Obama administration left a massively unwieldy Strategy and Economic Dialogue for addressing all issues with China, but my guess is the Trump team won’t be interested. Perhaps something like the Japan model would work with China. Both countries will be looking to Tillerson for ideas.

What is the administration’s plan for North Korea? Probable answer: There isn’t one. North Korea has reached a level of difficulty that defies a two-month policy review, let alone the old shibboleths used since Bill Clinton’s presidency about North Korea only isolating itself with its bad behavior. The only effective near-term response is to strengthen deterrence and missile defense and step up interdictions of North Korean proliferation activities that severely constrict its nuclear program. That does not make for good press headlines, but does make sense as an early plan with Japan and South Korea, and hopefully with China.

Good diplomacy is often about answering the questions that aren’t formally raised. Tillerson will have plenty of work to do on that front the coming week.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Jonathan Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and chair in modern and contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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