November 20, 2018

Top US diplomat Tillerson faces first major challenge

0122The new US secretary of state is heading off on his first trip to Asia, where diplomatic tensions run high.
Rex Tillerson, who has no previous political experience, will be visiting countries in the shadow of North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Global superpower China may be the key to that problem, and to stability in the region, but relations with the US are strained at the moment, partly over comments Mr Tillerson himself has made.
His first true test as a diplomat is a potential powder keg. So is the former oil boss up to the task?
Rex Tillerson has kept a remarkably low profile in his first month or so in office, giving no press briefings in six weeks, and sticking to prepared statements.
Any hopes that reporters might see him in action on this Asia trip were dashed, however, when it emerged he wouldn’t be bringing the state department press corps along.
Instead, Mr Tillerson will be taking a single reporter from a conservative website, the Independent Journal Review – because of the small plane being used, the state department said. The journalist, Erin McPike, recently wrote about Tillerson in a piece on “Exxon Mobil’s special treatment from the White House”.
The trip is seen as important because Mr Tillerson will be trying to conduct high-level diplomacy in a region shaken by his president’s public comments.
Donald Trump has tweeted that China needs to be “taken on” and decried the country’s “military complex” in the South China Sea. The president has said that South Korea “makes a fortune on us” while the US defends it, and has accused Japan of “currency manipulation”.
Such remarks have led to uncertainty in the region about the direction of US foreign policy, something Mr Tillerson will have to deal with.
The secretive isolationist nation has continued its development of nuclear weapons despite sanctions and threats from the international community. Two nuclear explosion tests and more than 20 missile launches in the past year have increased tensions.
Both Japan and South Korea, which are US military allies and host US troops, are within missile distance of North Korea.
But it is China, as North Korea’s only ally on earth, which holds the power to affect change.
Donald Trump has accused China of ignoring the North Korea situation, and essentially allowing it to worsen.
But Beijing has taken relatively strong steps in recent weeks. Early in March, it asked Pyongyang to stop its missile tests to “defuse a looming crisis”, and earlier dealt its ally a severe economic blow by banning coal imports.
The United States has deployed the Thaad missile defence system (that’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) in South Korea to defend it from nuclear attack.
Unfortunately, the missile defence system’s radar is extremely long range, extending into China.
“It’s incredible the speed with which China’s leaders can just switch on anti-South Korea sentiment here,” the BBC’s China Correspondent, Stephen McDonnell, said in a blog post this week.
The South China Sea problem
China’s development of artificial islands with defensive capabilities in the South China Sea is deeply controversial.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” Mr Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, likening it to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

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