Michael J. Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University, is author of “By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised eyebrows with several of his statements in Asia last week, but in general he struck the right tone — even if it requires a bit of historical and policy context to understand why. Here’s a report card on the secretary’s trip:
● “Mutual respect” and “win-win solutions.” In Beijing, Tillerson parroted the Chinese when he said that U.S.-China relations should be built on “nonconfrontation, no conflict, mutual respect and always searching for win-win solutions.” As a general rule, it is not a good idea for senior U.S. officials to repeat such Chinese formulations nearly word for word, since they will be interpreted in China based on the official narrative of the Communist Party. But this was a minor mistake compared with the Obama administration’s 2013 embrace of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposal for a “new model of great power relations” between Beijing and Washington. That six-character Chinese phrase cast the United States and China as the two powers that should decide the future of Asia, implicitly downgrading U.S. allies and partners such as Japan and India to second-tier status. In contrast, Tillerson’s use of mundane Chinese Foreign Ministry rhetoric described a bilateral process and did not place China in a privileged position over democratic U.S. allies. Still, in the future, the secretary will want to find his own words to characterize relations with China, which — as he pointed out in other parts of his public remarks — are highly competitive but do hold the potential for greater cooperation.
●“All options are on the table ” with North Korea. Tillerson also took a bit of heat for this statement at his Seoul news conference Friday. But this is exactly the warning that a Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush administration would probably be sending right now. Over the past year, Pyongyang has raced toward its goal of fielding an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the continental United States with a nuclear warhead. It has deployed hundreds of missiles capable of reaching Japan, South Korea and U.S. bases on Guam and showed a willingness to employ biological or chemical weapons when it allegedly ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half brother in Malaysia using VX nerve agent. The United States is unlikely to choose a preemptive military strike, but it is critical at this moment to reiterate long-standing U.S. policy toward North Korea: that all options, including military and even nuclear options, will be considered, as necessary, to deter attacks on our homeland or allies.
Tillerson was also right to state that 20 years of diplomacy with North Korea has “failed,” particularly after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared two weeks ago that the United States and North Korea were like “two accelerating trains coming toward each other ” and proposed a new diplomatic approach based on a U.S. freeze of military exercises in exchange for a North Korean freeze of missile tests. This was a ludicrous proposal on several levels — not least because of the alleged moral equivalency between the United States and North Korea and China’s own effort to bow out of the problem. Tillerson minced no words in putting Beijing on notice that China needs to step up.
● Japan and nuclear weapons. In an interview with the Independent Journal Review, Tillerson hinted that, in light of North Korea’s repeated missile tests, Japan might need to develop nuclear weapons down the road. If the intent was to pressure China to exert greater pressure on Pyongyang, then waving the “nuclear Japan” warning will not work. It would be much more effective simply to demonstrate that North Korean actions are enhancing strategic trust and solidarity with U.S. allies — a geopolitical trend that can help shake Beijing out of its complacency on North Korea. In any case, the answer was ambiguous enough that it will have little impact on China, North Korea or Japan for now.
Overall, Tillerson sent the message he needed in order to gain some traction on North Korea. The confusion that has emerged over his intentions has more to do with the Trump administration as a whole than with his own performance. President Trump vowed as a candidate to make unpredictability a hallmark of his foreign policy, and he has shifted positions on fundamental questions, such as whether the United States will defend allies or maintain the one-China commitment that the past six presidents made the basis for U.S.-China relations. Tillerson hit the right tone, but U.S. foreign policy needs an effective chorus backing him up in Washington.