Tillerson is making his first trip to Asia as U.S. secretary of state amid deepening tensions on the Korean peninsula and at a time when U.S. allies need reassurances on security commitments in the region. Carnegie experts are available to discuss expectations for the visit, its potential outcomes, and the path forward for U.S.-Asia relationships.
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“Secretary Tillerson will emphasize the urgency of dealing with North Korea. No American president can tolerate the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea able to range the continental United States. The secretary will stress that recent advancements in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs are a game changer for the United States and its allies, and the United States will continue to take steps to defend and deter against North Korean provocations, including through missile defense. Significantly more pressure is needed to force Kim Jong-un back to the goal of denuclearization. While China stresses the importance of dialogue to resolve the North Korea issue, the United States has been disillusioned by decades of engagement with Pyongyang in which North Korea failed to live up to its commitments.”
—Paul Haenle, director, Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy
“Among the most important tasks for Secretary Tillerson in Asia is to reassure nervous U.S. allies about the durability and credibility of the U.S. security commitment. Statements made by then-candidate Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign exacerbated long-standing fears of U.S. retrenchment. Faced with a more assertive China and a growing nuclear threat from North Korea, South Korea and Japan need to hear that the United States will stand by them, come what may.”
—Toby Dalton, co-director, Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program
“Secretary Tillerson’s visit has been characterized by U.S. officials as “results oriented” and focused on North Korea and fair trade. American allies in Tokyo and Seoul will treat him with respect because they have a habit of needing American success and leadership. In China, they will assess him in light of Chinese needs, which obviously are not the same. This is not something personal, as the Godfather might say, it’s business. Beijing will assess whether tough talk has a serious strategy behind it or is just bluff, and whether changes in American trade policy will strengthen or weaken the United States. China’s leader Xi Jinping is preparing for his summit with President Trump with gifts and soothing assurances, made all the easier because Beijing perceives the sun setting on US leadership in Asia. Tillerson has an opportunity to get the Chinese to think again.”
—Douglas H. Paal, vice president for studies
“As important as Tillerson’s current discussions in Northeast Asia are regarding the containment of North Korea—including bolstering missile defenses without degrading the allies’ relations with China—his most critical test will be when he returns to Washington. Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing have serious doubts about Tillerson’s relevance as an influential foreign policy actor in the Trump administration, and his reputation has been only weakened by embracing big budget cuts to the U.S. State Department and missing a key planning meeting in Washington for a U.S.-Japan trade dialogue that could become the centerpiece for managing this critical alliance relationship. If Tillerson cannot get a team in place soon and demonstrate ability to impact policy decision making by the White House, then he will be squandering the individual talent and diplomatic resources of his department, and diminishing U.S. influence in Asia.”
—James L. Schoff, senior fellow, Carnegie Asia Program
“Tillerson’s trip to three key Asian nations comes at a time of considerable confusion and tumult in U.S. policy towards Asia and its relations with the region. Above all else, Tillerson needs to provide Asians with a coherent, strategic, and mutually productive approach to dealing with the region. He also needs to show his Asian counterparts that he speaks for and is strongly supported by the president and is the authoritative voice of the administration on foreign policy. None of these things exist at present, due to the disarray of the Trump administration and its foreign policy process. Many Asians are deeply worried about the future tenor and direction of U.S. policy in Asia.”
—Michael D. Swaine, senior fellow, Carnegie Asia Program