US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is walking into the eye of the storm. His first visit to Asia (Japan, South Korea and China) comes amid political turmoil in South Korea, a missile-firing North Korea reportedly planning another nuclear test, a South Korea-China row over the THAAD deployment, and uncertainty clouding Sino-US relations.
Tillerson's role in the Trump administration is also in question. The well-respected ex-CEO of ExxonMobil has been absent from several Trump meetings with heads of State and has not been allowed to choose a deputy nor senior staff. But, Tillerson meets with Trump several times a week, and some speculate he is quietly letting internal power struggles in the White House play out before raising his profile.
Yet coming on the heels of a successful Asia tour by US Defense Secretary James Mattis in early February, Tillerson's first foreign sojourn to East Asia appears to underscore that the region is an important priority to Trump. It also reflects a sense of urgency with regard to concerns about reckless North Korean behavior, a central theme of his trip.
With North Korean missiles recently landing within Japan's 200 miles exclusive economic zone, the North Korean nuclear issue will likely dominate Tillerson's discussions in Tokyo. The recent Trump-Abe summit went a long way toward reassuring Japan about the US' security role. But Japan, like the US' other Asian allies, is concerned about what Trump's "America First" policy, the US rejection of the TPP and moves toward protectionism may mean for the US' long-term role in the region.
Tillerson's visit to South Korea comes at an awkward moment. South Korean president Park Geun-hye has just been impeached, creating a political vacuum that will not be filled until after the mid-May elections. Moreover, Moon Jae-in, the leftist opposition candidate is leading in the presidential polls. Moon favors dialogue with North Korea and has opposed the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. His election would likely create some tension in US-South Korea relations, particularly over how to deal with Pyongyang.
But by far, the most important challenge on Tillerson's trip will be his meetings in Beijing. Tillerson will be setting the stage for the Trump-Xi Jinping summit in April, giving a preview to his Chinese counterparts on Trump's approach to China. Many expect a reset in Sino-US relations.
The most urgent item on Tillerson's agenda is finding a common ground with Beijing on how to deal with North Korea. There is a risk of a continuing "blame game," where the US presses China to use its influence on Pyongyang to solve the nuclear issue while Beijing presses the US to stop threatening North Korea and engage in dialogue. The danger is that North Korea may become a source for Sino-US confrontation rather than cooperation.
But, there are important overlaps in US and Chinese interests (a non-nuclear North Korea and stability on the peninsula), and a concerted approach of working with the other powers in Northeast Asia has the best chance of achieving positive results.
The Trump administration inherits a troubled US-China relationship in which the US consensus has unraveled. The US business community, a key pillar of the relationship, has increasingly voiced concerns that it feels less welcome, and Beijing's emphasis on "national champions" for key industries is closing off opportunities.
Tillerson is likely to stress the need for a new economic relationship based on the principle of reciprocity. Negotiating a robust Bilateral Investment Treaty would be a good mechanism for more reciprocal economic ties.
During his confirmations hearings, Tillerson made provocative remarks, threatening to block China's access to the South China Sea territories under US control. He has since backed away from those comments, and no doubt, his views will be questioned in Beijing.
China's assertive maritime activities have been a major source of debate in the US along with a push for more aggressive freedom of navigation operations. But of late, the South China Sea has been relatively quiet. Beijing has nearly finished its construction on disputed reefs, has bolstered its ties with other claimants such as the Philippines and Malaysia, and is expected to reach a new Code of Conduct accord with ASEAN. The US has pushed for such an agreement, and it may be on Tillerson's agenda.
More broadly, Tillerson may probe for a new framework for Sino-US dialogue to replace the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. A new bargain focusing on economic objectives and strategic issues could be the centerpiece of the meeting.
The author is a Senior Fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter: @RManning4.