WASHINGTON, DC — March 14, 2017 — Secretary of State Tillerson’s first visit to Northeast Asia has a tall task ahead of him.
First, he must reassure nervous allies like Japan and South Korea that America will stand firm with them as North Korea fires ever more sophisticated missiles while working to place a nuclear warhead atop such weapons.
Such reassurance could not come at a better time. North Korea is quickly proving to be the gravest international challenge the Trump administration—indeed the world—faces today.
The rulers of the so-called “hermit kingdom”, The Kim family, have since the 1950s created a cult-like society with now Kim Jong-un ruling as a type of god.
Kim holds on to power with an iron-fist, killing anyone who stands in his way, using the vilest instruments to achieve his objectives, like chemical weapons, which were almost certainly used to assassinate his half-brother just weeks ago. He operates prison camps that look transplanted from the worst days of the Nazis. One defector confirmed back in 2016, as he described, that such camps were worse that Auschwitz.
While visiting Japan and South Korea, Tillerson must demonstrate how the new administration will formulate firm but pragmatic strategies on North Korea to back its allies. The best approach would be a combination of diplomatic, economic, and defensive moves, reinforcing key allies but also holding out the possibility, however remote, of some sort of negotiation with Pyongyang.
For example, the Trump administration could seek backdoor conversations with Kim’s representatives to see if there is any room for talks towards lessening tensions. At the same time, Washington could seek new sanctions on any firms that are evading existing economic prohibitions on North Korea—think Chinese companies that make millions on illegal North Korean trade. Trump could also work with Japan to enhance that country’s missile defenses by sending a THAAD battery or two to Tokyo.
The China Challenge:
At the same time, Secretary Tillerson will head to China, to ensure that tensions on not only the Korea peninsula but also in the South China Sea, in trade and as well as in the East China Sea and over Taiwan, don’t strain what is an already tense bilateral relationship.
Tillerson’s meetings with Chinese officials, in all likelihood, will be nothing more than a ‘robust’ exchange of views, the standard handshake photo-ops and maybe a press conference with gentle but pointed tough-talk from both sides.
The differences between Washington and Beijing are quite stark across multiple pressure points now: North Korea, the East China Sea, Taiwan, the South China Sea and now trade issues. A skilled diplomat would have a tall task navigating the waters of just one of those issues, but combined, these almost certainly dim any prospect of a more robust relationship.
We should expect China to make it a point to voice its displeasure with THAAD in a tough but friendly manner befitting the visit of America’s top diplomat. And I am sure Tillerson will repeat America’s own talking points on this issue as well. They will agree to disagree”
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You can watch a recent clip of him here on CNBC: http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000592573
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As well as on France24: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8yuNjOnVvQ
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Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, and Executive Editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He also serves as fellow at both the Potomac Foundation and the Center for China Policy at the University of Nottingham (UK). He is the author of “The Tao of A2/AD: China’s Rationale for the Creation of Anti-Access”. In the past Kazianis has led the foreign policy communication efforts of the Heritage Foundation and served as editor-in-chief of The Diplomat and as a fellow at CSIS:PACNET based in Hawaii.
His work has been quoted or cited by CNN, Financial Times, Newsweek, Time, Los Angeles Times, CNBC, BBC, Bloomberg, Reuters, Roll Call, Yahoo, DefenseOne, Fortune, Forbes, RollCall, The Hill, Slate, Foreign Policy, The Washington Times, Lawfare, NDTV, The Australian, The Daily Caller, The Week, Popular Mechanics, and Yonkers Tribune, among many other outlets from across the political spectrum.