On Wednesday, Rex Tillerson departed for his first trip to Asia as secretary of state. Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese officials and observers will be asking five fundamental questions about the new administration’s Asia policy.
1. Will the United States continue to lead in Asia? While the signals coming from the White House on global leadership have not been encouraging, American allies and partners, and for different reasons, China, are asking whether America will maintain its leadership role in Asia. Will the United States continue to rally other countries around priorities like nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and freedom of navigation? That Tillerson is not visiting Southeast Asia on his first trip is disappointing, because it is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), now in its 50th year, that provides the platforms, like the East Asia Summit, where the U.S. can speak to regional priorities such as foreign terrorist fighters and China’s artificial island-building in the South China Sea. Southeast Asia is also home to an exploding consumer class. But stops in Tokyo and Seoul will give Tillerson a chance to solidify relationships with counterparts in Japan and South Korea, with both allies looking for reassurance of U.S. staying power and shared priorities.
2. Does the Trump administration have a vision for strategic economic engagement in Asia? Central to the question of American leadership is a vision for a prosperous Asia, as economic policy is a critical facet of diplomacy in Asia. With the Trump administration’s dismissal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, partners and allies are left questioning what the new administration wants to achieve in Asia on the economic front. There is great demand for the United States to provide alternatives to China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade deal that includes all of Asia, and to the “One Belt, One Road” development strategy. Asia wants more high-quality U.S. goods and investment. But bilateral trade deals are not the best vehicle in a region that is integrating. At base, ASEAN’s main project is to come together in an economic and political union. Fast-growing Southeast Asia will want to know that the United States continues to support its vision of an ASEAN community.
3. What is the Trump administration’s China policy? Trump has signaled his intention to take a harder line with China. But while the region certainly looks to the United States to take a lead in pushing back on bad Chinese behavior, “standing up to China” is not an end in and of itself. U.S. partners in Asia want to see a strategy grounded in shared principles — protecting U.S. rights and sovereignty, advancing a fair and transparent economic environment, and guarding U.S. national security — and that seeks not just to confront China, but also to find common ground and work out differences peacefully. All of Asia, but particularly Southeast Asia, is irreversibly dependent on both the United States and China for its economic livelihood and for regional peace and stability. No one in Asia wants a new Cold War that forces countries to choose sides. Conversely, in areas where the United States and China have been able to forge cooperation — or at least civil dialogue — it can catalyze region-wide cooperation. A case in point is North Korea.
4. Does the Trump administration have a clear strategy for dealing with North Korea? North Korea’s recent missile launches, apparently simulating an attack on U.S. and South Korean forces, will undoubtedly be at the center of Tillerson’s discussions. In recent years, efforts to work with China to impose new costs on North Korea — particularly through U.N. sanctions — have helped galvanize broader regional efforts to shut down North Korean proliferation activities and fundraising. With clear guidance from the U.N. Security Council, and particularly with consensus among the permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — smaller, weaker nations have been more willing and able to help shut down Pyongyang’s money-making pipelines. With the killing of Kim Jung Un’s younger brother in Kuala Lumpur last month, now is a good time to push Southeast Asia toward even tougher enforcement of sanctions.
South Korea’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system is an important signal that the United States will protect itself and its allies, but it is also raising tensions with China, which opposes North Korea’s nuclear activities, but also has deep-seated concerns about the consequences for China of possible conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Pressing Beijing to do more to raise the costs to the North of pursuing its illegal nuclear and missile programs will be key to any North Korea strategy, but China does not, in fact, have complete control over Pyongyang. In Tillerson’s discussions in Beijing, Asia will be looking to see that he intends to push China to do more, but also that he understands Chinese interests. North Korea’s nuclear program is a complex, hard problem with no good answers. It is a quandary that has challenged even the best, most seasoned diplomats and strategic thinkers. Asia will be watching to see if the Trump administration is up to this difficult task.
5. Does the Trump administration have a sensible approach to fractious maritime disputes? The South China Sea has faded from the public eye in recent months, but many in Asia will be looking to Tillerson’s meetings to clarify the U.S. position on the region’s maritime disagreements. His call during his confirmation hearing for a “blockade” of island outposts and statements from other key Donald Trump advisers suggesting a more confrontational approach in the South China Sea initially raised serious questions about U.S. intentions. The one thing that the entire region, including ASEAN, has consistently agreed on has been the need to resolve disputes in accordance with international law (even if some, particularly China, try to interpret that law differently). Chinese officials will most likely seek to avoid discussion of maritime issues.
Japan, whose own maritime dispute with China in the Senkaku Islands has heated up in recent years, has sought reassurances that the United States will continue to uphold international law, honor its security commitments, and continue to oppose China’s militarization of its South China Sea outposts. How Tillerson responds to these opposing pressures will be telling. If he visits Japan and China without speaking on maritime issues, that will raise questions about America’s commitment to international law, its longstanding role as security guarantor in the region, and obligations to allies like Japan and the Philippines. But an approach that isn’t grounded in law, and doesn’t take into account the complexities of the competing claims, will only aggravate tensions and weaken the ability of the United States to lead on this consequential issue.
Photo credit: Tillerson (right) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bonn, Germany, on February 17, 2017. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images