It was clear as soon as Rex Tillerson arrived in Tokyo late Wednesday that the new secretary of state’s first trip to Asia could turn out to be a mission impossible. In a six-day tour of three nations, the unproven diplomat is tasked with persuading Japan, South Korea, and China to support a tough, military-first strategy to counter North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs.
Unless Tillerson has a lot of rabbits in his hat, it can’t be done. All three nations have made their preference for new negotiations with the North Korean regime clear.
Tillerson’s tour is an opening round in an extended process. But early signals indicate that Washington risks serious damage to important relationships across the Pacific—notably with China and South Korea—if it remains as inflexible as it appears.
It has been plain since Barack Obama’s final months in office that the status quo on the Korean Peninsula isn’t working. Kim Jung-un, the North Korean erratic leader, fired roughly two dozen missiles last year and conducted the nation’s fourth and fifth nuclear tests—the last the most powerful to date. There have been five more missile launches already this year.
“We have 20 years of a failed approach,” Tillerson said after talks in Tokyo Thursday with Fumio Kishida, his Japanese counterpart. “In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required.”
That was a good start. Subtly or otherwise, America’s main allies in Asia have made it plain they judge the Obama administration’s strategy since 2009—sanctions combined with a fortified military posture—a failure. So does Beijing. The alternatives, everyone agrees, are negotiations or military confrontation.
But is that where agreement between Washington and East Asia ends? At this early moment, it looks like it.
Tillerson was careful to avoid details of the administration’s thinking. “Part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach,” he said in Tokyo Thursday.
As diplomacy-speak that’s good, but officials in Washington had already dispensed with the niceties by the time Tillerson boarded his plane. The Voice of America reported from the State Department Monday that “Washington said it is ‘moving farther away’ from considering the option of direct engagement with the North Koreans.”
Two days later an administration official told Reuters, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system the Pentagon deployed in South Korea over China’s vigorous objections: “THAAD is non-negotiable. This is one of those things where Beijing is just going to have to adapt or live in a perpetual cycle of outrage.”
That’s a worrisome idea of diplomacy with the world’s No. 2 economy. It appears to be another example of what happens when the Pentagon, not State, runs Asia policy—a problem in trans–Pacific relations for the past seven decades.
Before Tillerson boarded his plane Wednesday evening, a common line among think tank experts was that he would eschew Clintonesque flash to “quietly and effectively get the job done.” Given what he’s up against, a quiet trip—and probably an effective one—looks unlikely:
• Japan. Tokyo will prove Tillerson’s least complicated stop. After his summit with Trump last month, Premier Shinzo Abe signaled that Japan is prepared to participate if the Trump administration decides to reopen negotiations with the North. But while Abe prefers negotiations, his first concern is Japan’s security, and he’ll take it any way he can get it.
Abe is a nationalist hawk of the old school, let’s not forget. This week his government announced plans to send its largest naval vessel, a helicopter carrier, through the South China Sea to join U.S.–led exercises in the Indian Ocean. It will be Japan’s biggest naval deployment since 1945.
• South Korea. Tillerson steps onto a very tricky path when he arrives in Seoul Friday. He’s charged with persuading Seoul to hew to a hard line toward the North and accepting the deployment of the THAAD system, even though South Korean voters don’t want either.
Everything exploded when Park Geun-Hye, a hawk on North Korea and a strong Pentagon ally, was deposed on corruption charges one week ago. Elections are now due in May, and the opposition Democrats are ascendant. Moon Jae-in, their candidate, favors new talks with the North, reinstituting Kim Dae-Jung's “sunshine policy,” and blocking the THAAD system. Moon’s the clear favorite in the polls, with support hovering between 30 percent and 36 percent.
It’s hard to see how Tillerson can hoe this row without making a mess. It’s not the first time South Koreans have taken a stand against the Pentagon’s plans, but Koreans won their admirable democracy the hard way, and the unpopular Park’s fall leaves them especially prickly about it.
• China. Beijing has been crystal clear on two points lately. One, it considers new negotiations a matter of urgency—as it signaled dramatically when it cut off the North’s coal shipments last month. Two, it is irate over the THAAD system in South Korea—concerned that it is an unneeded provocation and gives the Pentagon the ability to peer deep inside Chinese territory.
As a clear measure of China’s anxieties, the foreign ministry proposed last week that the U.S. and South Korea call off their annual military drills, now under way, in exchange for a suspension of the North’s nuclear activities. Although Washington rejected the suggestion, the ministry repeated it on the eve of Tillerson’s flight from Tokyo to Seoul.
Tillerson’s brief in Beijing is to smooth relations after a stony start when Trump took office while identifying trade-offs to induce Beijing to accept THAAD as a fact on the ground. That looks like another tough assignment for three reasons.
One, Beijing’s signals indicate it doesn’t consider THAAD any more negotiable than Washington does. Two, its calls for new negotiations with Pyongyang, probably via the “six-party” format that previously brought the U.S. to the table with five partners, have been incessant for some months.
Three, Beijing hasn’t been backing down on much lately, even when the stakes are high, as in the South China Sea. Does Washington have an enticement big enough to get the Chinese to cave on this one? It’s unlikely.
The Trump administration is putting a lot at risk if the determination is to avoid the negotiation table. And with the Iran nuclear accord in view, there’s no argument that a perilous standoff is the best “new approach.” The dealmaker should deal on this one.