Can Tillerson tackle a tense East Asia?

North Korea has ramped up regional anxieties ahead of US Secretary of State visit

Stephen R Nagy

PHOTO: AP / Takehiko Suzuki

International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, The World

15 March 2017

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Japan, South Korea, and China this week. He will have his work cut out for him if he wants to both build bridges and tackle rising regional tensions, Stephen Nagy writes.

North Korea’s missile tests on 6 March and its march towards nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) has raised anxieties in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. These provocative tests followed the assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam in February 2017 using the deadly nerve agent VX and the disclosure that the North tried to sell nuclear material to international buyers last year.

The VX killing and attempt to engage in nuclear-grade weapons proliferation are a salient demonstration that North Korea is not only a regional threat to stability but also a global threat along conventional and nonconventional lines.

It is against this backdrop that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing this week. His visit is meant to reassure allies in the face of a growingly provocative North Korea while at the same time laying the groundwork for a tête–à–tête between Presidents Xi and Trump later in the year to recalibrate US-China relations.

Japan and South Korea are arguably the most vulnerable to the North Korean conventional and non-conventional military threats. The two countries will demand US resolve, commitment and a surgeon’s precision and attention to detail when “getting tough” with Pyongyang. This will not be easy as the strategic patience approach under the Obama administration, and the pragmatic engagement coupled with credible deterrence under the Bush administration, both failed to stop the development of the North’s nuclear, chemical and missile technologies.

More on this: How North Korea could be convinced to give up its nukes

The acceleration of the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea and potential installation in Japan may allay some security concerns in Seoul and Tokyo but will not be a silver bullet tackling North Korean brinksmanship. This failing partly explains why leaders in Seoul and Tokyo are considering acquiring preemptive strike capabilities.

The conundrum for Tillerson is how to counter the North’s highly destabilising instigations to satisfy Seoul and Tokyo’s concerns without alarming an already hyper-suspicious China about a perceived US containment strategy. Many in China believe the US is using North Korea as a scapegoat for the installation of the THAAD system – a system that has the potential to make China’s nuclear deterrence capabilities redundant.

Tokyo has an enviable position compared to South Korea in receiving Tillerson. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proactive reach out to the newly-elected President Trump in November 2016 and recent visit to Washington last month has strengthened US-Japan ties without dramatically changing Beijing’s security calculus vis-à-vis Japan or the Japan-US alliance. As a result, Tillerson’s mission in Japan is to stress the centrality of the US-Japan Alliance for peace and security in the region, to reiterate support for Article 5 in which the US is compelled to come to Japan’s defence, and to offer support to Japan in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat through the provision of technologies such as THAAD.

The recent delivery of THAAD missile systems to Seoul, on the other hand, has already provoked the ire of Beijing as the systems are seen to tangentially and negatively weaken Beijing’s security. Beijing believes that the THAAD system’s radar capabilities extend into Northeastern China enabling the US to approximate the location and number of nuclear and non-nuclear missiles with the effect of eliminating their deterrence capabilities.

In reaction to the recent delivery, Beijing has made it unequivocally clear at the ministerial level and military level that the THAAD instalment will result in a military escalation. Beijing has already stepped up its pressure on South Korean companies through banning tour groups, cancelling cultural performances and threatening South Korean blue chips such as Lotte.

Tillerson’s visit to Seoul is further complicated by the recent impeachment of Park Geun-hye and the potential election of Moon Jae-in who promotes a softer stance on North Korea and is not supportive of the THAAD instalment. As in Tokyo, the Secretary will need to stress the centrality of the US’ commitment to South Korea’s defence while at the same time recognising that his country’s hardline approach on North Korea complicates South Korea-China relations and potentially instigates more belligerence by the North.

The economic dimension of South Korea-China relations is an area that Tillerson will have to be particularly cognisant and supporting of if he is to ensure that the THAAD instalment does go ahead as planned.

More on this: China’s delicate North Korea balancing act

The third leg of Secretary Tillerson’s visit to East Asia will be to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to start the process of arranging a bilateral meeting between President Trump and President Xi. With different views on how to deal with North Korea, the THAAD instalment, a consolidated Japan-US partnership in the region, and President Trump vowing to get tough on China, the conditions seem unfavourable for a more cooperative, proactive stance on North Korea and for developing win-win Sino-US relations in the short to midterm.

Tillerson’s task will be to ensure that the US under President Trump acknowledges China’s core interests of state sovereignty; national security; territorial integrity; national reunification;  China’s political system established by the Constitution and secured by overall social stability; and basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.

For Beijing, these are the minimum requirements for moving forward in terms of bilateral relations.

That being said, the Secretary’s mission to East Asia and China, in particular, is to recalibrate US-China relations to be more representative of the evolution of the economic, political and security changes in their relationship since normalisation. This recalibration will no doubt entail pushing back against China’s claims in the East China Sea (ECS), South China Sea (SCS), and a provocative and highly destabilising North Korean regime. All of these would be welcome in Seoul and Tokyo.

At the same time, assertive demands on what China deems its core interests, especially in the year when the new Standing Committee will be appointed, risks increasing tensions in an already downward spiralling relationship that would have negative bilateral consequences. These increased tensions could further embolden North Korea or see destabilising actions in the ECS and SCS as proxies for US-China problems.

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